He has plastered the world’s biggest cities with his three-story-high photographs, turned Times Square into his personal photo booth, twice transformed the Louvre’s iconic pyramid. He has made an Oscar-nominated film with Agnes Varda, was named one of the Most Influential People of the Year by Time magazine, and is the subject of a major new exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. And now, the 36-year-old French photographer-street artist-urban activist who goes by the nom de guerre “JR,” has, of all things, published a book for children. And it’s about wrinkles.
The book, simply named Wrinkles, takes its cue from JR’s 2008 project in Cartagena, Spain, in which he shot stunning close-up, full-frame pictures of some of the city’s elderly residents—capturing their wrinkles in full furrowed glory—then enlarged and splashed them on walls around the city. (He followed this up in Los Angeles, Havana, Berlin, Shanghai, and Istanbul.) The wrinkles became a powerful visual metaphor for the lives these elders have lived, everything they’ve seen, felt, loved, and lost.
By working in the streets, JR has said, “We can reach people who never go to museums.” And his massive-scale wrinkle pictures look truly spectacular on urban walls, with their own concrete cracks and signs of slow decay. Taking the aging faces out of that context and setting them in a book, just an arm’s length away, puts much more focus on the skin itself, giving the black-and-white pictures a bracing, in-your-face intensity.
Children, of course, are keenly aware of their surroundings and the differences in how people look—which is one of the reasons they’re often fascinated by wrinkles. Over the book’s 48 pages, JR’s hyper-detailed photos and Julie Pugeat’s tender words go about explaining the mysterious—at least to children—nature of these “soft stripes in our skin.” JR gives us people of various ethnicities (the humanistic, Family-of-Man message comes through loud and clear) who wear a wide range of emotions—expressive faces that will captivate kids. “Wrinkles tell the story of someone’s life,” the text explains. “Of laughter, And togetherness; Of play, And calm.”
Every photographer knows that the eyes are the window to the soul but, in JR’s lens, wrinkles reveal just as much. His extreme close-ups evoke life’s good times and heartaches, our best wishes and deepest regrets, those things we understand as well as those we don’t. Will much of this gazing-back-over-a-lifetime nuance be lost on small children who live aggressively in the present? Perhaps. But it may lead a child to look a little more closely at grandpa’s face, and to understand that a lifetime of smiling leaves something behind.
By Bill Shapiro
Bill Shapiro is the former editor of Life magazine, and the co-author of the recently
published book What We Keep.
Phaidon, 48 pages, $17.95