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Local photographer Anastasia Pottinger publishes new book on centenarians

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Photographer Anastasia Pottinger said she was more nervous than 101-year-old Lucy Hall when the two first got together for a photo shoot.

But Hall loved to tell stories, so she just closed her eyes, traveled back in time and narrated stories from her life while Pottinger worked.

Hall’s only stipulation was to not be identified in the nude photographs, but the next day, she couldn’t stop talking about how great the experience had been, Pottinger said.

When Pottinger sat down and looked through the photos, she saw that she’d accomplished what she set out to do: treat Hall and her body with respect and dignity and convey the beauty of aging that she had seen while she photographed Hall.

“I had tears rolling down my cheeks because I just thought it was so beautiful,” Pottinger said.

Now, nine years later, Pottinger has released her first photo book, “100: What Time Creates,” a project on centenarians that was born out of Pottinger’s photo shoot with Hall, who has since died.

The book launch party was held Wednesday evening at Skylark Bookshop. Pottinger signed copies of her book, gave a short presentation about the project and the subjects she worked with and greeted friends, family members, clients and other fans of her work.

Some of the relatives of centenarians featured in the book attended the event, too.

“A lot of people think that beauty fades with age, but I think it stays,” Mitchell Brady, the great-grandson of Merle Sparlin, one of the featured centenarians, said after Pottinger’s presentation.

A background in photography

Pottinger received her first camera, a Kodak 110, when she was 10 years old and spent a week taking pictures at her grandparents’ house in Georgia. She was intrigued.

“I just totally fell in love with the idea that you could stop time,” she said.

From then until she graduated from Rolla High School, Pottinger took advantage of every photography-related opportunity she could find. She was involved with the Girl Scouts, enrolled in photography workshops and practically lived in her high school’s dark room.

Pottinger came to MU as a freshman planning to study photojournalism but decided that journalism wasn’t right for her. She switched her major, sold all of her camera equipment and eventually graduated from the University of Maryland with a bachelor’s degree in family studies.

She stopped taking pictures altogether.

“I think the whole idea of putting yourself out there for others to see and have an opinion on terrified me,” she said.

Years later at a Visions Photography Competition exhibition in Columbia, Pottinger felt inspired once again to pick up photography. She had long felt jealous of her friends and coworkers who were professional photographers.

“I wanted to be a photographer, but I was just too scared. I didn’t know how to make it work or how to put myself out there, so I think I was always too scared of the uncertainty or the possible rejection,” she said. “It took a leap of faith to come back to it.”

Pottinger made it her goal after viewing the Visions exhibition to start photographing and to enter the competition the next year. Not only did she enter the competition, but one of her photographs won first place in the amateur division.

That was a huge boost of confidence, and after winning a couple of other small, local competitions, she bought a digital SLR camera and slowly started to photograph more and more.

Eventually, she was able to leave her day job, running a home day care, and start photographing full-time. Although she was once thought of as a baby photographer, she is now more generally regarded as a portraitist.

Now, Pottinger runs Rogue Studios and has a space in Orr Street Studios in the North Village Arts District.

From an exercise to publication

The day she shot the photos of Lucy Hall, Pottinger didn’t imagine that it would be anything more than an exercise. But about 11 months later, a friend offered up her grandfather, Merle Sparlin, as a willing subject.

Pottinger started to blog about her photos, posting them on social media and entering them into exhibitions and photo contests. As a prize, she won an opportunity to go to New York for a portfolio review.

The only problem was she didn’t have a portfolio.

Pottinger quickly found and photographed a few more centenarians and compiled her work. In New York, she met with a publisher who told her that her work wasn’t book material and no one would want the pictures on their coffee table.

About six months after she photographed her second subject, her photos were featured on LENSCRATCH, a well-known photography blog.

Three more years passed. With a lack of travel funds to photograph new subjects, Pottinger decided to put the project on hold to focus on raising her two sons.

But then, out of blue, her photos went viral.

In spring 2014, Pottinger’s centenarian project was featured on the photography blog Feature Shoot. That same day, CNN called wanting to publish the photos on its blog, and the next day, a man called from London offering to represent her.

By then, her work had about 200,000 hits on Bored Panda and was also featured on several other sites, such as The Huffington Post, Fast Company, Beautiful/Decay, DeMilked and The Huffington Post Italy.

The work was published internationally, too. The Paris Opera used her photos in one of its program brochures, and the Chinese magazine, Civilization, also published them.

Too much of a good thing

Hoping to hang onto the momentum, Pottinger worked with an agent to find a publisher interested in turning her photos into a book. Nothing came of it at first, but a small independent publishing company, Marcinson Press, contacted Pottinger to express interest.

Pottinger thought that was great but was hoping for a bigger press, she said . However, other publishers told her that the photographs were too accessible online or that they wanted the project to be more like “Humans of New York.”

So Pottinger kept photographing centenarians, and in fall 2017, Marcinson Press contacted Pottinger again to say that it hadn’t forgotten about her photos and was still interested in putting together a book.

She gladly took the offer, and over the course of the next year Pottinger photographed nine more models, edited the collection and compiled the photographs into a book. In early November, Pottinger and Marcinson Press finished the book and scheduled the book’s launch party for December.

The owner of Skylark Bookshop, author Alex George, said he’s known Pottinger for about 13 years and had been alongside her every step of the project. So, when she finished the book, it was only natural, he said, that he would host the launch party at the bookshop.

“People have questioned the sanity of opening a bookstore in 2018, but it’s evenings like these, where the community comes together to celebrate one of their own, that make it all worthwhile,” George said to the audience during the launch event.

Skylark almost sold all of Pottinger’s books during the event but will be receiving more copies in the store soon. For Pottinger, it’s meant far more than book sales. It gave her opportunities to have conversations with fascinating humans.

“People who are 100 right now have lived through some of the most interesting times in history,” she said. “So the camera gave me a reason to be with these people, and I’m so grateful for that. I think that’s probably enriched my life in way I wouldn’t have gained otherwise.”

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.

  • Photo editor and senior photojournalism student. Send me story ideas and tips at emilynevils@mail.missouri.edu.

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