Guest post by Robyn Selman, Photo Director, Forbes
There’s more to portrait photography than meets the eye. In journalism, it has always been the product of an intense collaboration between the photo and art desks, editorial, the person pointing the lens and the subject.
How to represent distinguished women over 50 years of age at the height of their powers? When the photo assignment for the 50 Over 50, a new Forbes list dedicated to 50 women who have achieved significant success later in life, came to the art desk, the first and only thing everyone agreed on is that we would seek to hire female photographers and crew, wherever possible. But when Design Director Alicia Hallett-Chan and I put forward the idea of using florals and greenery in the images, a groan went up among our editorial peers. Women and flowers, they said, is ridiculously overused. It was as if they thought we were declaring our venerable subjects’ late bloomers when what we were trying to communicate is that these powerhouse subjects were in full bloom.
We needed to find a way to communicate our vision that would transcend stereotypes. I put a call out to a range of floral designers from New York to Los Angeles. Had their businesses even survived the pandemic? Some suggested floral couture (wearable flowers), another suggested using blooms to represent the subjects’ home states. Then came Emily Thompson.
I told Thompson, a New York-based sculptor-turned-florist, that when I proposed florals to the editors, they were bored. Hearing this, her fist hit the table: Flowers are the reproductive engine of the planet!
Thompson’s mission is to make sure flowers get all respect they deserve. Her installations evoke growth and persistence rather than beauty. She prizes roots, bulbs, vines, branches, trunks—even weeds— as among her favorite elements. To her, all parts of the plant are vital. We hired her.
The Forbes crew wove across both coasts with a traveling greenhouse of bulbs, branches, vines and buds. Every woman featured understood intuitively that our source material represented tenacity and longevity, not short-lived flashes of beauty. Our tangle of vines and branches—like their shared tales of persistence—wrap around the story of each of our subjects.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi stands indefatigable amidst a fertile mound of earth and wildflowers installed in the National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol. Venture capital investor Tracy Caldwell holds a single tulip—the bulb and roots defiant. The RealReal’s founder-CEO Julie Wainwright is seated amidst necklaces of vines and clematis. Prolific showrunner Shonda Rhimes, creator of Bridgerton, Grey’s Anatomy and more, emerges from unopened fists of Rhododendron—like her many as yet untold stories. Dr. Kati Kariko, whose pioneering research of mRNA-based therapy, used to develop the Pfizer and Moderna Covid vaccines, is amidst a shock of white tulips from her native Hungary.
I remember reading as a girl that the best career for a woman over 50 was to be an opera singer. Alas, that aria was not meant to be for me. My greatest act over 50 has been my time as photo director at Forbes. There are few projects that would hit so squarely in the heart as this one. With 50 Over 50, I was able to photograph an honor role of women with the skills of another honor roll of women.
In sisterhood: Verlyn Antoine, Mika Brzezinski, Charles Brucaliere, Alicia Hallett-Chan, Fernando Capeto, Rachel Campbell, Ivan Clow, Nicholas DeSantis, Ann Edelberg, Ashley Etienne, Suzanah Halilli, Armond Hambrick, Caroline Howard, Martei Korley, Bre Jaggers, Marquia James, Luisa Kroll, Alexandra Kuhn, Alison Layton, Suzette Lee, Dana Asher Levine, Rebecca Miller, Ember Miller, Chad McClymonds, Maggie McGrath, Kinga Mojsa, Jennifer Polk, Pete Schnaitmann, Celeste Sloman, Philip Smith, Dawn Sutti, Emily Thompson, Kirsten Taggart, Gail Toivanen, Christian Zelaya and Jamel Toppin.