Libby Magness Weisberg waits at her Cherry Hill condo in a plush pink bathrobe and animal-print slippers. In a few minutes, she will pose for photographer and artist Nancy Hellebrand — completely naked.
Weisberg is 90.
Her body bears witness to the progression of life, of carrying and breastfeeding three children, of age spots and wrinkles and sags, of hips that creak and shoulders that hunch, and all the other travails and indignities of getting old.
Some might call her body a battlefield. Hellebrand calls it beautiful.
“I love their wrinkles,” says Hellebrand, 73, tall and lean with a shock of wild gray hair and round, red glasses perched on her nose. “I love their skin, the way light is on their skin. It’s a different version of beautiful. In younger women, the skin is taut. In older women, the skin is the opposite of taut … and it has its own strength.”
Intermittently for the last few years, and with particular focus in the last few months, Hellebrand has sought out women of a certain age to photograph nude for her “Body of Awareness” project. At her light-filled South Philadelphia studio, she has larger-than-life blow-ups of her photos — never the face, but close-ups of different areas — shaped into 3D forms that accentuate a torso with a fold of skin, a pelvis with strands of short gray hair, the sag of a knee, a wrinkled belly that looks like the swirls of an ancient tree trunk.
“There is a tender, vulnerable, very sensitive, alive, beautiful terrain there that’s very worthy of attention and consideration,” Hellebrand says. Her work has appeared in dozens of shows, including at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Tate Britain.
“It interests me because I’m drifting towards it,” she says. “It interests me also because this is a population that has such richness to it, more richness than we generally acknowledge.”
Her subjects are discovering as much about themselves.
“I always felt like an ugly duck,” says Weisberg, who describes herself as so modest she didn’t change her clothes in front of her late husband.
Not so much anymore.
“It’s my body,” she says. “I’m so glad I’m alive. Who’s going to judge me?”
Hellebrand sizes up Weisberg’s pale back through the display screen of her Sony digital. She asks her to step to the right, and then turn toward her, all the while offering a steady stream of “incredibly beautiful”s and “perfect”s. Weisberg beams with the validation.
“It’s like Miss America,” the model says and laughs.
At first, Hellebrand envisioned frame-filling black-and-white studies of old women’s bodies — building upon an earlier project that zoomed in on old women’s eyes and mouths. More recently, Hellebrand began shaping her photos into the sculptural forms. She initially focused solely on old women, preferably in their 80s, even 90s, volunteers who don’t come easy. “Most people don’t want to take a risk,” she says.
Though she still explores the aging body, she has started to add pictures of women as young as their 30s. “By seeing youth,” she says, “you can then see what older age has to offer.”
Old bodies, she points out, are seldom seen by anyone beyond doctors and caregivers — and she might add undertakers. Many of the women share intimate details, about sex lives or diagnoses of horrible diseases — but, so far, no one has shared pictures of the grandkids.
“That’s something for when you’re dressed,” she says of the latter, “and you have your handbag with you.”
Pat Finstad, 82, of Sarasota, Fla., is a friend from Hellebrand’s years in Florida. She posed this year for the project and allowed she had some trepidation, but when it came time to slip out of her robe, it was no big deal.
“This is what life looks like when it has been lived for a while,” Finstad says of her body. “There is beauty in all of this.”
Hellebrand says she was never one of those darkroom geeks (when darkrooms still existed). She remembers a holiday present of a camera as a kid. “I loved it.”
At the University of Southern California in the early ’60s, she made pictures of homeless people on park benches — her first foray into social commentary, which continues to inform her work.
“That was when photography wasn’t everywhere all the time,” she says. “Selfies didn’t exist. It was just the joy … the surprise that you could take a picture that looked like something you felt.”
Hellebrand moved around colleges and to New York, working for commercial and fashion studios, getting married and eventually graduating in 1971 from Columbia University with a bachelor’s degree in comparative literature, which she argues is the best background for a career in photography.
“You figure it’s all about character and story,” she says. “That’s what my photography has been about and still is.”
Soon after, Hellebrand set up shop in London, working with well-known photojournalist Bill Brandt, and three years later, she snagged a one-person show at the prestigious National Portrait Gallery.
Named “Londoners at Home,” it captured everyday folks in their houses, exposing what she calls “intimate beauty.”
“I found I could connect with people I didn’t know,” she says. “I could have intimacy. We could get to know each other a little bit.
“It’s not dissimilar from what I’m doing now,” she adds. “It’s just that they had clothes on.”
Once back in the States, Hellebrand pursued her art and taught photography, primarily at Bucks County Community College, with stints at the Philadelphia College of Art (now University of the Arts) and Yale University.
She lived life. She had two children, divorced, remarried. She watched her mother “lose her bearings” to Alzheimer’s. She spent a decade in Florida as part of a Sufi community that explored Islamic mysticism.
Back in Philadelphia in 2013, she began working on “Torn. Crushed. Ripped. Beautiful.,” in which she captured older people’s eyes and mouths in a 3D format. Next, she collaborated with photographer Shira Yudkoff on “Absence,” images of old clothing arrangements. Her current project exposes that most primal condition of the human existence: nakedness.
“I guess,” she says, wrapping up her photo shoot, “I’m trying to accept my own aging and all that that implies.”