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Boston Heights photographer focuses on older adults for her portraiture

Photographer Barbara Pennington felt like no one paid attention to people age 60 and on. But she’s paying attention. Her first book, "Extraordinary Women from an Ordinary Place," showcases portraits and a short biography of 52 women Pennington formerly worked with, met at the Peninsula Art Academy or knew through mutual friends.

Barbara Pennington looks at her book, Extraordinary Woman From An Ordinary Place, in her home studio in Boston Heights.
Kelly Krabill
Ideastream Public Media
Barbara Pennington looks at her book, "Extraordinary Woman From An Ordinary Place," in her home studio in Boston Heights.

The idea began 20 years ago.

“I worked as a director of patient and volunteer services at Euclid Hospital, and at that time I had 240 volunteers,” she said. “Most of them were female, and most of them were women in their 70s and even a few of them in their 80s.”

Even though many of the volunteers had thriving careers when they were younger, Pennington said they weren't always respected at the hospital. And now that she’s older, 81, she said people her age are oftentimes overlooked.

Finding her models

She walked into the Peninsula Art Academy a few years ago and saw a woman in her 90s wearing a gray bun of hair sitting behind the front counter.

“All those memories about the idea of doing a book about women came back to me,” she said. “And I left there, and I couldn't get her out of my head.”

She went back to the academy in the coming weeks to ask if she could photograph her.

Edna Bradford Ratner was the first person photographed for Barbara Pennington's book.
Kelly Krabill
Ideastream Public Media
Edna Bradford Ratner was the first person photographed for Barbara Pennington's book.

“I said ‘Edna, I’m serious, get your calendar out, I want to photograph you,’” Pennington recalled. “And she did, and that’s how it started.”

Edna Bradford Ratner then came to Pennington’s home studio in Boston Heights. She was the first of many women photographed for the book. Pennington sits down with each person after the session to talk about their life and then posts their story and picture on her Facebook page for feedback. Then, she edits the story down to about 100 words.

Ratner’s story includes her time studying art history in college then later becoming a graphic designer. At 92, she became the person on the cover of Pennington's book.

A late start

Pennington's photography career began when she was in her 60s. When she retired from Euclid Hospital, the volunteers collected money to buy her a Nikon film camera. But it sat in her closet for a few years until an advertising colleague from her husbands’ business showed her how to use it. She then joined the Cleveland Photographic Society in 2004, after upgrading the film camera to digital.

The society is a membership organization where photographers of any level can take classes, go on field trips and join Friday night sessions - a night for nonmembers to join and for members to partake in competition. Pennington said the program changed her life.

“I started taking classes there,” she said. “I started a mentorship program there to be supportive to help new members as I needed help when I was starting out.”

Richard Ader is the president of the Cleveland Photographic Society. He said Pennington has always been available to help where she can.

“When someone like Barb gets to the point where she’s actually successfully publishing books, we really take pride in that too because it’s one of our own and we know we’ve all had a little hand in that,” he said.

Barbara Pennington photographs Steve Kaselak for her next book with men age 60 and on: Not Sor Ordinary.
Kelly Krabill
Ideastream Public Media
Barbara Pennington photographs Steve Kaselak for her next book with men age 60 and on: "Not So Ordinary."

Her next book

Pennington is now working on a book about men age 60 and on, "Not So Ordinary." With a goal to photograph 50 men, Euclid resident Steve Kaselak recently came to her studio.

“Barb and I used to work together many years ago at the Beachwood Marriott,” he said. “She was a salesman, and I was the banquet manager and we became friends. She contacted me a few months ago and said, ‘Would you like to be in the book?’ I said ‘Sure, why not?’ I was very honored. Wow, somebody’s writing about me after all these years.”

After publishing her first book, Pennington wants to keep going. And she is. She's spending the rest of her life doing what she loves: photographing people.

“I’ve tried everything else,” she said. “I’ve done macro. I’ve done all of it, and now I’m going to focus on these books with portraits of different people and different subjects.”

Kelly Krabill is a multiple media journalist at Ideastream Public Media. She is excited to engage viewers with visual storytelling. While living near Canton most of her life, she recently moved to Cleveland.