It really started kind of small in Kenneth Wajda’s Boulder Colorado commercial portrait studio back in 2015. He advertised an open studio on Mondays in the local events listings for seniors age 70 and over to come in and get a formal portrait made at no cost, figuring that was his slowest day at the studio, and it was a way to create portraits that otherwise wouldn’t exist.
“There aren’t many people commissioning a high-quality, formal portrait of their elderly relatives nowadays,” Wajda said. “I figured if I did this, offered the shoots for free, I might get some takers.”
He calls the series: The Wise Photo Project.
He makes their portrait on mainly black and white film using vintage film cameras — Rollieflexes, Hasselblads, 4×5 — all the cameras that were used in the fashion industry in the 1940 and 1950s by legendary photographers like Richard Avedon and Irving Penn shooting for Harper’s Bazaar, Vanity Fair and Vogue. He works completely in an analog way to create the portraits, then prints (both darkroom prints and digital prints if the photo is larger than his enlarger will allow or is in color) and frames the photograph for the senior, all at no charge.
Wajda lights up when he looks at the results, a wonderful face posed against a hand-painted old masters background on a vintage Victorian-era couch.
“I’ve had people say, when I hand them the framed photo, “This is beautiful, but what do I do now? I don’t know the protocol,’ thinking there must be a catch, a cost. I tell them to take the photograph and go home, it’s a gift.”
“In a world where they say there is no free lunch, with these photos I like to say, ‘Oh, yes there is,’” Wajda said.
Wajda occasionally will get a reprint order from the family for additional photographs. These extra prints, which he also frames, are the only ones that come with a charge. He said that fee, plus the occasional commissioned portrait shoot and of course his editorial and commercial work helps offset the out-of-pocket costs he incurs to make and deliver these seniors’ portraits.
“Regardless of the cost to me, I need to make these photographs because I know what it’s like to live with portraits of my parents and grandparents on my walls. They are in the room with me.” With no one making these portraits, Wajda believes all families will have in future generations is a handful of phone snapshots, many of which are poor quality and many more that will be lost to digital obsolescence. “Find me a photo you made just 10 years ago of your grandma. You can’t. I’m a professional photographer with multiple filing systems on numerous backup hard drives and I can’t.”
In the history of the world, photography is actually quite young, only 181 years old, first introduced in 1839. The early photographs were made on tin, glass and paper. As Wajda explains, the only reason many of them still exist today is that they are physical. “Someone printed them on something tangible, put them in an album or shoebox, tucked them away and they survived all this time. They were a physical item, an actual photograph, like you often see in museum and galleries, antique shops and vintage stores.”
He recently photographed a 98-year-old woman. “When you realize when she was born in 1922, that photography at that time was only 83 years old, you realize this is a rather new art form. Before the mid-19th century, most people never had a likeness of themselves made,” Wajda said.
“Now, once again no one is making them because of the ubiquity of cameras and phones, it seems like photography is everywhere, but formal portraits, no one is thinking about creating them,” Wajda said. “I tell them to dress up, look their best wearing something that makes them feel good. Dressing up is something few people need to do these days, and especially as they get older.
Wajda says he knows he’s making these portraits for people he will never meet, and who will never know him — the great-great-grandchildren of the subjects in front of his camera. He sees it as a gift to future generations. “They will have a quality portrait of their ancestor because I created it. They may not know me, but they will have their portrait to have some sense of who they were, what they looked like.”
“You know, I’ve photographed world leaders, celebrities and rock stars while working as a photojournalist for newspapers and magazines and commercially over the past 35 years, and these portraits of seniors are the photographs that mean the most to me. If I could travel the world only making these, I would welcome that. Because these photographs are not made to market pop culture, sell magazines or promote a political agenda. They exist for just one reason — to remember the faces of those who came before them, loved ones of long ago who make up the history of a family.“
“It’s easily the most important photograph I make,” Wajda said.
In 2018, he took his camera (he worked digitally due to the quantity of photographs being made) and background and studio lights to a local Boulder County senior center and made over 80 portraits for the series, all gifted to those seniors. “We had a night where we set up a showing of all their photographs and had a reception, like an art opening with finger foods and drinks. I wanted to make it a big deal to make them feel like a big deal. It was a great night with them leaving with their portraits,” Wajda said.
Kari Grotting, Seniors Recreation Program Supervisor for the Longmont Senior Center said, “The Wise Photo Project has been one of the highlights for me at the senior center. When I first saw Kenneth’s photos, I was reminded of Rembrandt and how his art evolved over the years to show and express appreciation for people as they age. To me, the face is a canvas of wisdom and personality — sometimes through the eyes, sometimes through a smile, sometimes in the lines. Kenneth has the talent for capturing those features and presenting tastefully and artfully through his photographs.”
In 2020, Wajda opened the project up by inviting photographers from around the world to join him and participate in making seniors’ portraits the same way he does — making the photographs and framing and gifting the portrait to the seniors, all at no cost. “The goal is to have photographers around the globe creating similar work. It doesn’t have to cost a lot. I buy frames at yard sales and thrift stores and I frame the photographs myself.” Wajda said. “The biggest investment is time and the most important thing is that they get made and gifted. That they exist as a physical document of the lives of these special people, and that they feel important — someone wants to make their portrait.”
Wajda acknowledges that for some photographers it will be too expensive to incur the costs to make and gift many portraits. “My hope then is that they create just one or a few. That’s more than would have existed if they didn’t choose to join the project. And these few photographs are portraits that I wouldn’t be able to make myself, so I welcome their participation. I look forward to photographers participating in all the far reaches of the globe.”
Wajda said he hopes the project circles the globe like other worthy photo projects have, namely Humans of New York. “I believe it’s a worthwhile project. If I can get people to understand what important work it is that I’m proposing, to photograph these amazingly beautiful faces, I believe it can take off and we can essentially change the world.”
“The world for those future generations,” Wajda added, “That’s whose world we’re changing.”
Once you’ve committed to work on making portraits of seniors, post photos of the framed work on this Facebook group, and share the link with your photographer friends. You can contact Kenneth with any questions at his web site and also see more of his work at KennethWajdaPhotographer.com. He’s on Instagram at www.instagram.com/kennethwajdaphotographer/