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Stateside Podcast: Michigan photographers capture America’s grandmas

Photographers John Hanson and Joey Schultz travelled across all 50 states to take portraits of grandmothers and archive their wisdom in a new book, Grandmothers of America.
Joey Schultz & John Hanson
Grandmothers of America
Photographers John Hanson and Joey Schultz travelled across all 50 states to take portraits of grandmothers and archive their wisdom in a new book, Grandmothers of America.

Photographers John Hanson and Joey Schultz travelled across all 50 states to take portraits of grandmothers and archive their wisdom in a new book, Grandmothers of America.

“It’s a hugely diverse collection of portraits — every shape, size, age, every kind of grandma imaginable,” Hanson, a Detroiter, said.

The duo went door-to-door across the nation and asked grandmothers to share what advice they’d give to their younger selves if given the chance.

“We would meet someone and break the ice, start talking about advice, and we'd have just a matter of minutes to get the cameras out and move. And we really wanted to light every grandma to create the most beautiful portrait that we could.”

Due to the nature of shooting on film, Hanson said, it took a bit of time for them to roll out the equipment, set the lighting, and line up a shot.

“Usually between the two of us, one of us would get a great portrait, but we only had about five minutes to do it, because after you're taking as many photos as you can get, the grandma starts to get tired like, ‘Okay, are we done now?’”

Schultz, a Traverse City resident, noted that, because they were picking their subjects at random, he and Hanson depicted the country’s grandmothers in a “really honest” way.

“I think that, Johnny and I, through our method of just knocking on doors and going all over the country and, you know, taking photos on both sides of the train tracks, as one might say, we were able to really capture the diversity and beauty of the grandmothers of this amazing nation.”

In the first few days of canvassing, Hanson and Schultz had some trouble getting grandmas to spend quality time with them. But after some trial and error — and being mistaken for Bible salesmen — they found the right angle for their pitch.

“We see kids on their phones and we really want people to talk to their elders and get off their phones, and that's why we're making this book,” Hanson said. “All these grandmothers across the country see their grandkids on their phone and not engaging with them. So that was one part of the hook that we could share.”

Eventually, they got the hang of things, and even developed a so-called “gran-dar” — an excited sense at the sight of Mercury Sables, garden gnomes, and other items often associated with grandmas.

“We would see a house, and, by the end, we could actually feel the grandma in there,” Schultz said.

All in all, Schultz and Hanson compiled “tens of thousands” of grandma portraits.

“We had an editor, a woman named Maia Flore, an artist out of Los Angeles who actually is originally from France, go through our entire catalog. That way, Johnny and I didn't have any bias in the photos. And we wanted someone to tell a narrative,” Schultz said.

The two photographers first met during their youth, in the Grand Rapids music scene, until realizing their shared interest. Later in life, they reconnected in Los Angeles and developed a chemistry working in film together.

“I realized we worked really well together, and then we were sitting at breakfast one day… And I said to Johnny, ‘I had this idea of documenting grandmothers throughout the whole United States.’”

Hanson and Schultz trace the inspiration for this project back to their own grandmothers. Hanson was particularly close to his grandma on this mother’s side.

“She was just totally the glue that held that side of my family together. Just a beaming matriarch who held space and cooked and nourished the whole family unit and really just helped me to see, you know, setting a standard for what love looks like, what family looks like, what a healthy family looks like.”

For Schultz, the inspiration for Grandmothers of America can be traced back more specifically, to when he was asked what photography meant the most to him.

“And it would be both my grandmothers. Mostly, because they live with such grace and they showed me so much of how to live and how to be, and how to handle stress and situations and and show love.”

This segment originally aired January 14, 2022.


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Erin Allen comes to Michigan Radio as a new producer for the station’s Stateside show. She is an experienced communicator driven by her curiosity about stories of people.
Lucas is a senior at Michigan State University studying professional and public writing. He has previously worked as a co-director of editing for VIM, an MSU fashion magazine. An aspiring music journalist, Lucas dreams of getting paid to go to concerts. He is also a screenwriter. When he’s not working, he can be found walking around aimlessly, listening to either punk rock or Kacey Musgraves.