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A life in pictures: photographer Carinthia West looks back

Growing old wasn’t something that young people in the sixties and seventies thought much about – they were too busy enjoying the present. Model, actress and photographer Carinthia West faces up to three score years and ten. Words by Carinthia West

Carinthia West

My friend Emily Young, one of England’s foremost sculptors, once gave me a wise piece of advice. Every ten years, she said, on a significant birthday, you should look down at your previous self as if helping them up imaginary stairs, and decide where you want to be at the end of your next decade. Well, with the help of a house move and at least 30 boxes of photographs and paperwork, love letters and diaries, I have been doing just that.

In May I turned 70, an age that as a teenager I thought I’d never reach (in common with most of my generation, singing along to The Who’s lyric I hope I die before I get old, so redolent was it of zimmer frames, sour grapes and senility. However now that I’ve reached this age I am finding it a golden opportunity to revisit my former self, and re-evaluate my present.

Every box brings new surprises. I’d forgotten how many celebrities I had interviewed over the years of working for British and American magazines as a contributing editor, with names including Oprah Winfrey, Helen Mirren, Dennis Hopper and Donald Sutherland. As a guest editor of Marie Claire, Joan Collins sent me to Hong Kong to interview the wives of millionaires. Also for Marie Claire I flew to Guatemala to travel among the poverty-stricken people of the Highlands, and to Indonesia to be adopted by the Asmat Tribe, who only a few years before had been carrying out head hunting raids (these had been a key element of Asmat culture).

It seemed to me that my life was either Concorde or cargo and I joked then that I was flying by the seat of my hotpants. At 43 I wrote a piece for New Woman about my fourth decade (in 1995), which I now find unbearably upbeat and self-confident. (The cover line, written by the editor, was ‘Midlife oasis – the older you get the better life gets’ … Aaaa the arrogance of it!) In the piece I quoted American model and actress Lauren Hutton: “It will never be as hard for anyone to turn 40 as it was for me; I had become very, very old and had no hope!” She was only 45.

I interviewed Isabella Rossellini, who had just been sacked by Lancôme at the age of 42 for being “too old” for their ad campaigns and she told me “I am so bitter. They make me feel like a middle-aged woman!” The premise of the piece was that life keeps getting better once you hit your forties; in the words of editor Helen Gurley Brown, “You can have it all”. But did I truly believe it? Now that I have woken up to the fact that I am officially ‘older-age’ not even middle, I am fully aware that the article was all about ambition, and did not tap into humility, serenity, wisdom or compassion, or indeed love, all of which I now feel are the greatest gifts turning 70 can bring.

On the subject of love, I am horrified at how fickle I was throughout my adolescence and twenties. In my boxes there are bundles of weepy letters from boys pouring out their deeply held emotions when I had already written in my diary “bored with Chris/Tom/Max” or whoever the latest crush had been. When you are young and desired there is always another train coming down the road to catch, and I clearly subscribed to the Tarzan/Jane theory of not letting go of one vine until you’ve caught another. This romantic road trip of course means I missed many trains which would often have been far better for me than many of the ones I caught!

To my eternal shame, I once boasted to a friend, “The only way I can remember which year is which is by remembering who I was with at the time. Men are like the rings around trees.” According to my diaries, I was motivated by either romance or a job, which while being admirably independent in one way, hardly qualified for marital bliss. A box marked ‘Divorce Papers’ pulsates like green kryptonite in the corner reminding me of the deep pain emotional conflict brings, and in my case two marriages, although I am proud to say I remain on good terms with both husbands.

I feel so lucky to have travelled a great deal in my life and collected friends from all over the world, particularly from America, Europe, Australia and Indonesia, and still today I feel these scattered friends are truly ‘my tribe’. I count among them Valerie Taylor, the great Australian ‘dive queen’ who is now in her eighties and the subject of an award-winning documentary and Robert Patten, one of the world’s greatest experts on Dickens. But I am most grateful to my girlfriends who have been the greatest support in good times and in bad, actresses Anjelica Huston, Helen Mirren, Harriet Walter and singer Carly Simon, with whom I have shared flats and adventures… but there are many others, less famous but just as precious. For my life – like most of us – has indeed been a road trip, sometimes in open highway and sometimes strewn with rocks and boulders.

Accompanied by my ever-faithful Canon camera, I photographed everything and every person I encountered through the seventies, eighties and nineties. These included street and desert scenes, the market trader, tribal warrior, sweet shop owner, my parents, my friends, acquaintances, and my pets (all my family dogs had to pose for me!), and of course Selfies (what makes generation X think they invented them?!), waiting with expectant glee until the film was developed – that was half the fun – until the digital age came in and I stopped.

In my current exhibition, Shooting Stars at the American Museum and Gardens, you will only see images of recognisable icons whose photos I took in the 1970s and many of whom remain my friends. But this is not the whole of my story. Trawling through the vast library of slides, prints and negatives, yet to be digitally filed, reveals a magpie-like existence. I have kept them all in shoeboxes, friends’ attics, storage containers and cellars, and I am amazed at all the opportunities I had in the form of telephone numbers and business cards, some famous, and all of them like a forgotten footprint of my existence, tracking my previous life.

Over and over again I am reminded of how lucky we were as a generation to be in our prime in the sixties and seventies when life held so much promise. Despite strikes, three-day weeks and the Irish troubles, we never experienced a world war as our parents and grandparents had. We had the Pill, short skirts, rock ’n’ roll, Mini Coopers with tinted windows, and above all the freedom to do what we wanted with our lives.

To my later regret, I never went to university, despite getting acceptable grades. This was partly because I had a traumatic car crash (as a passenger in a Mini Cooper driven by a boyfriend) which kept me hospitalised for the best part of a year. Dreams of a modelling career evaporated (when a nurse held up a mirror and an unrecognisable face looked back at me – I remember thinking ‘Right girl, you’d better do something else with your life!’). It was also because I was bored with school and wanted to go to drama school. As my headmaster said to my parents, “Boys and the Kings Road beckon, but ‘tis a thousand pities”. Once recovered I made maximum use of both of these, meeting The Beatles, the Stones and most of my teenage female idols within a year. To this day I am amazed to see myself in the audience of a concert at The White House sitting next to Jackie Kennedy, or in the front row of The Rolling Stones Rock ’n’ Roll Circus, on the David Frost show when Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies invaded his TV studio, and even boogieing on stage at the very first Isle of Wight and Glastonbury festivals. I was always ‘off stage right’ somewhere, and if I ever write a book that would be a good title.

In today’s reveal-everything, tell-all, internet and social media climate when every alcohol or drug problem, tragic incident or heartbreak, great or small, is broadcast for all the world to see, it makes writing a memoir less appealing and in truth I always prefer to hint at these stories through photographs.

I am often asked in interviews, ‘How did you know all these people?’ and I always say the same thing: “London was a small place in those days. If you met one Beatle and were accepted into the inner circle, you probably met everyone”. Of course the key to maintaining these friendships is discretion. I believe everyone has a right to a private life, and I was brought up in the kind of family whose ethos was that you should only appear in the papers when you are born, when you get married, and when you die. I remember my grandmother saying, “Stop making such an exhibition of yourself!” both when I was a child of two having a temper tantrum or as a bolshy teenager having a snit fit over a zit. Since displaying my archive of photographs, I seem to have been doing nothing else… I hope she’s not turning in her grave.

If turning 70 does nothing else it forces you to be honest with yourself. In this pandemic, we have all lost our freedom, some of us have lost loved ones (I lost two close friends this year alone, although not to Covid), and to a greater or lesser degree we have solidified old friendships or lost them. The reasons can be myriad…purely geographical, or just a parting of beliefs in anything from politics to the way in which each of us handled our enforced lockdowns. I have dear friends of 80 plus who have more curiosity and energy than I will ever have, and other younger friends with young children or teenagers who keep me alive with their enthusiasm and infectious laughter.

Having recently moved, I will never forget the kindness of virtual strangers when I caught Covid in March 2020, probably from a fellow passenger on an airplane. Every morning there were homemade soups, juices and notes on my doorstop while I coughed and shivered my way through 10 days of isolation and Pride and Prejudice. These are not ‘celebrity friends’; just good people.

Illnesses force you to think about your health, what you have or have not done, who you love and who you want to hand things on to. Reaching 70 you have to face the fact that what lies ahead is more aches and pains, and death becomes closer, so it’s harder to motivate yourself. Avoiding unnecessary stress and courting serenity are key to growing old gracefully! When ill, I made promises to myself not to ever be judgemental or impatient, but once feeling well again, it is hard not to slip back into old ways. As my father – a military man – once said, “When you’re in the thick of battle you pray to God that once you’ve won you will be kind to everyone; then once you do win you complain because your tea is cold.”

Going back to my friend Emily’s original comment, what would I like to see as I watch my 70-year old self climb those imaginary stairs? Since it was the young who first encouraged me to share my archive, on a practical level I would like my photographic work to be continue being exhibited, if only to teach our social media and technology driven youth what life was like in the 1970s. There has never been an age where memories have meant so much, now that we can explore not only nostalgically but digitally and forensically, and share files of images in a nano second.

On a mundane level, I would like to continue cultivating my garden. I would also like to visit countries that I’ve not been to, such as Japan and New Zealand.

However, by far the most important of all, I would wish my friends, family and lovers to know the happiness they’ve given me, want all feuds of any kind to be put to rest, and to maintain a certain curiosity. One thing I would never wish is to be any younger, despite my ‘best’ years being behind me. It’s so much fun being me right now, and as the saying goes, ‘on their deathbed, no one ever wishes they had spent more time at the office’. Each one of us has our own personal history and, in author Alex Haley’s words, “Every death is like the burning of a library.” When I look down those imaginary stairs, one thing I certainly don’t plan to see is a stair lift!

Shooting Stars: Carinthia West, Britain and America in the 1970s is at the American Museum & Gardens until 31 October; americanmuseum.org

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