In 1900, the average age of death around the world was 31 years, not much different to Roman times when the average Roman lived for between 20 and 30 years, as best we know. But things started to change during the 20th century. By 1950 life expectancy had increased to 48, and by 2014 it had galloped ahead to 71.5 years. And on top of that, more and more of us are living to see our 100th birthday.
The oldest reliably recorded age was achieved by a Frenchwoman, Jeanne Calment. She died in 1997 when she was 122 years and 164 days old. Mme. Calment claimed to remember Vincent Van Gogh popping into her father’s shop. Her age is likely to remain an extraordinary phenomenon for years to come, but that the number of centenarians is increasing is undoubtedly true.
The developing world has seen an annual increase of some 5.5 percent in the number of centenarians in recent years. Do the math, and that means the number of those getting to 100 is doubling every 13 years. Assuming the trend continues and an asteroid doesn’t plow into Earth before then, that means there will be 4.1 million centenarians around the world by 2050.
In the U.S. there were 32,194 people aged 100 years or more in 1980. By 2014, the number had more than doubled to 72,197. Explaining this remarkable increase, the University of Groningen’s Professor Fanny Janssen told the Daily Mail that, “People are living much longer than ever before, and will continue to do so, because of improvements in socioeconomic circumstances, improved living standards, improved housing, and advances in medical care, from antibiotics to statins.”
And one man who has been especially fascinated by this increase in longevity is photographer Jan Langer. He was born in 1978, so it’s going to be a fair few years before he sees his 100th birthday. Langer was born in Opava in the Czech Republic, a historic city that dates back to at least 1195. He studied anthropology, international relations and Spanish at university and now lives in the Czech capital of Prague where he is a professional photographer concentrating on portrait and documentary work.
Langer also engages in special projects and the one we’re looking at here is entitled “Faces Of Century.” The simple concept of Langer’s intriguing project is to use an old photo of an individual when they were young and pair this with a portrait of them as they were when he met them. And all of his subjects had passed the milestone of their 100th birthday.
Langer points out on his website that in the Czech Republic, “Nowadays, there are over 1,200 [centenarians]. In 50 years their number will reach 14,000.” Langer speculates on how the passage of time affects the mind and how this is reflected in the faces of the people he photographs. As he puts it, “The characteristics of personality change throughout life but it seems as if individual nature remains rooted in the abyss of time.” Let’s move on now to these evocative pairs of portraits.
Ludvík Chybík was born in 1908 in the Czech city of Zlín, and he lived in a retirement home there when Langer met him. In the right-hand portrait his age is 102. In the youthful picture he is 20 years old and when it was taken he was working as a “skilled confectioner.” Later he went on to work as a postman and the memory of his daily round was still imprinted in his mind. In a terse description of his relationship with his family, he said it was “bad – don’t see each other.”
Bedřiška Köhlerová is 26 years old in her left-hand portrait and 103 in her contemporary picture. She was born in Merano in northern Italy, and her youthful photo was taken at her wedding. In her working life she was an accountant, and when Langer took her portrait she was living in a retirement home in the Czech Republic’s second city Brno. Köhlerová never had children, and her one wish was to visit her native Italy one last time.
In the younger photograph here, Vincenc Jetelina is 30 years old and had apparently just completed building his house. Unsurprisingly, his career was as a construction worker. Born in 1906 in the Czech village of Lovčice na Kyjovsku, in the righthand picture he’s 105 years old. Despite his age, he was still living in his own home. Jetelina described his pastimes as “calm and peace.” His most vivid memory was the eight years he spent in prison for having worked as a district commissioner in the Second World War. That presumably means that he was adjudged to have been a wartime collaborator during the Nazi occupation.
Antonín Kovář was born in the north of the Czech Republic in 1906 and when Langer took his portrait he was 102 years old. In his younger picture he’s 25, and when it was taken he was bandmaster running his own band. As well as being a musician, Kovář spent his working life as a driver and a film projectionist. He lived in an old people’s home in the Czech city of Ústí nad Labem when Langer photographed him. Kovář spent his days reading the papers and listening to music, and his daughter visited every day. His best memories were of his harmonious marriage and of playing music. His one wish was that he could play the clarinet once more.
Anna Vašinová was 102 years old when the right-hand photo was taken and lived in a retirement home in Sloupnice, Czech Republic. She was born in 1909 in a Czech town called Zhoř. In her left-hand photo, Vašinová is 22 and had just married. She was an agricultural worker on the farms collectivized by the communists in 1948. When Langer photographed her, she spent her days reading romantic fiction. She remembered with fondness singing Russian folk songs. A less pleasant memory was the abduction of her husband by the Nazis. She hoped to meet him again after death.
Stanislav Spáčil, was a handsome young man of 17 when the left-hand photo was taken, and he worked as a skilled electrical engineer. He was born in 1908 in the town of Pozořice in the South Moravian region of the Czech Republic. In his right-hand photo Spáčil is 102 and was still living in his own home with his daughter in a South Moravian village. His simple wish for himself and his daughter was that they should both enjoy good health.
Anna Pochobradská, was born in 1910 in the Czech village of Vrchy and was exactly 100 years old in the right-hand picture. She was another of Langer’s subjects who was a farmhand on the collectivized farms of Czechoslovakia’s communist era, before the Czech Republic split from Slovakia after the fall of communism. She was 30 years old in the left-hand portrait. In a haunting answer to Langer’s question about what she wished for, her short reply was “to die.” Despite that, she did have a daughter who visited her every weekend.
Born in the Czech town of Adamov in 1910, Antonín Baldrman was 17 when the picture on the left was taken. He worked as a locksmith and a clerk. Langer photographed him when he was 101 years old and living in a retirement home in the town of Blansko. He filled his days by keeping up with the news, and he had a daughter who visited him twice each week. He remembered his old work colleagues with affection and wished for one thing – peace.
Marie Burešová was born in 1910, and her left-hand photo shows her at the age of 23 when she was married. She worked as a butcher. Even at the age of 101, when Langer took her portrait, Burešová was still living in her own apartment in the Czech city of Zlín. Her favorite activity in retirement was simply to spend time with her family. Her most striking memory was of when the communists took over the business that she owned.
When Langer took her photograph, Vlasta Čížková was 101 years of age but still living in her own home. In her youthful photo, Čížková is 23 years old. She worked as a cook in the dining room of the small airport in the village of Vodochody. She vividly remembered being in the truck that accidentally ran over and killed the seven-year-old Klaus Heydrich in 1943. His father was the hated Reinhard Heydrich, the German Nazi that ruled the Czechs until his assassination in Prague in 1942. She also had memories of Russian soldiers in her home after the Nazi defeat and of the arrest of her brother by the communists in 1948.
Ludmila Vysloužilová’s left-hand portrait was taken when she was 23 years old and was a present for her fiancé. Despite the fact that she was born in 1912 and 101 years old when Langer photographed her, she still lived in her own home and described her hobbies as “chopping wood, sweeping snow, working around the house.” She remembers her husband, who had died 60 years before Langer met her, with huge fondness. She had never married again.
Born in 1909, Prokop Vejdělek was 22 years old when the left-hand photo was taken, and he had just enlisted in the army. Vejdělek worked as metallurgical engineer and when Langer met him, he was 101 years old. He was living on the family farm, and he told Langer that his hobby was “circular saw cutting.” He said that his most unforgettable memory was “warm fresh goat milk.”
It’s immediately apparent that this photo-set of Langer’s is strikingly different from all of the others since it features only the portrait of Marie Fejfarová at the age of 101. By way of explanation, Langer says that when she turned 101, she burnt all of her photographs, diaries and letters and moved to the care home in Prague where he met her. She enjoyed reading works of French and English literature. She remembered hiding in the same coal cellar first from the Nazis in 1939 and then from the Russians in 1945. Her declared wish was “to fall asleep and never wake up again.”