When Lauren Fleishman’s grandfather passed away, the photographer found a book next to his bed filled with dates of birthdays and anniversaries. Tucked within its pages was a love letter he had written to her grandmother during World War II.
“I read the letter and thought about the importance of histories,” Fleishman says. “I wanted to work on a project where I could almost save these histories.” Three years ago, she began photographing couples who have been married for more than five decades, and has recently started a fundraising campaign on Kickstarter that’s designed to bring the project to an end. Fleishman says she’ll feel done when she shoots as many portraits as she can, and that the project will evolve into a book.
Although Fleishman’s background is as a photographer, she taught herself how to conduct an interview in order to also record oral histories of those she photographs—couples she meets at supermarkets, on the street and through their grandchildren. It was the first time she had interacted with her subjects so extensively, erasing the usual boundary between photographer and reporter, and she says the in-depth working process has been both rewarding and necessary to her archival goal.
“I tell the couples, ‘I’m taking the photograph but you are writing your love story,’” she says. “And a lot of the things that they’re talking about, I get the impression that they haven’t thought of these things in years.” After 50 or more years of marriage, a first date can be a hazy recollection—but Fleishman has found that the process of remembering can bring out a deep tenderness between spouses, a visible expression of love that she can then capture on film.
She limits herself to two medium-format rolls per couple, forcing herself to wait for those instances of intimacy. It’s a skill she says is related to her work as a documentary-style photographer, where her subjects did not pose. Within the confines of traditional portraiture, the spontaneous moment may be smaller—“like the way that a wife will touch her husband’s face,” she says, “or the way that they’ll kiss”—but the moment comes nonetheless.
The twin acts of remembrance and preservation, the interaction of which allows her to capture emotion, are key in helping Fleishman make good on her original intent of saving romantic histories. With such long-term couples as subjects, it’s not surprising that some of the individuals in her portraits have died since she met them, lending another level of significance to their images and voices. “The best thing for me is to get phone calls and letters from the spouses who are still alive, thanking me for recording them,” Fleishman says. “It’s a document.”
It’s also a lesson for lovers of all ages. Fleishman says that when she began the project, she was looking for the secret that these couples all seemed to know, the most important rule for a lasting relationship—but now she thinks that secret doesn’t exist. “I thought that there would be one common thread that kept them all together all these years,” she says. “There really isn’t. Everybody is just so different.”