What's Wrong with This Picture? 

By confronting society's greatest taboos, Oakland photographer Frank Cordelle has created something truly extraordinary.

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As for the notion that women should hide or alter their bodies as they age, she'll have none of it. "It's the dumbest thing, that growing old is something you're supposed to be ashamed of!" She bats a hand through the air. "Psssff!"

For his part, Frank Cordelle seems a bit less comfortable about getting older. Asked his age, he's uncharacteristically coy. "Why?" he volleys back softly, gray eyebrows arched. "Does it matter?"

It's a curious reaction for a man who says he's completely fascinated with how you get from the first image in his book, that of a baby girl being born, to the last, of regal Mary. He says he doesn't feel much different about his body than he did when he began the Century Project more than two decades ago. He's always been pretty content with it, and he stays in shape with long, frequent hikes in the Oakland Hills. He calls it going to church.

A few days after his visit to Lupin Lodge, the photographer sets off on an eight-mile trek through Redwood Regional Park. He knows every inch of the trail — how long it takes to climb the steep hillside switchbacks, and where to stop for water, or to find a fragrant bay laurel tree. Cordelle moves swiftly and deftly, but seems in no great rush. After a brief break for a granola bar and a small piece of dark chocolate, he bends over to pick up a scrap of trash someone left behind. He talks about those grad-school mornings spent leaping from airplanes and of the solar house he built for his mother, who called him up one day, at 87, and said, "Okay, okay. Put me in your damn book." He also reveals that it's been more difficult than he'd imagined to find community in Oakland, and that meeting women he's interested in dating has been particularly tough. Numerous ex-girlfriends weave in and out of his stories, but he's never been married.

Later that afternoon, he gives a tour of his office-slash-bedroom in the Glenview district house he shares with an old friend, doing the odd bit of carpentry in exchange for a break on rent. Since making the Century Project his sole photographic endeavor, Cordelle has worked hard to make ends meet, relying on the modest fees for his college exhibits and the generosity of others. One New Hampshire couple regularly sends him a check for "five figures," he says, and every so often he'll receive a small donation from someone who's visited his Web site, TheCenturyProject.com, where he notes the financial demands of his work and requests assistance.

The only hint in his room of the subject Cordelle has spent so much of his life thinking about is a stack of August 2006 issues of N magazine, published by the Naturist Society. His photo of 21-year-old Christy — the woman who once had the gall to wear a tank top, sans bra, to the mall — graces the cover. Hanging over a bookshelf stacked with boxes of photographic paper and recordable CDs is a photo of a 21-year-old Cordelle at soccer practice, his knee wrapped in a bulky white bandage. He was intentionally injured twice in college games by opposing players, he explains. As a result, "I went through a long period of not trusting men."

Another photo shows Cordelle with Guy, his brother, a few years later, a curtain of hair flitting past his shoulders. A third snapshot is of his mother as a young woman, sailing on a boat in New York harbor shortly after emigrating from Germany. She died a few years after he took her photo for the Century Project.

A wooden bar, strung with baseball caps, runs the length of a doorless closet. "I get one at every college I visit," he explains. On the wall above his computer he's hung a US map dotted with red thumbtacks to mark where the project has taken him, and a dozen or so snapshots, including two of his old house in Bennington, New Hampshire. He lived there for thirty years before selling it to move West, and says he misses the sauna and studio he'd built, and the apple tree out front. Yet "I actually felt kind of liberated when I sold it," he says. "I couldn't fix up a house and do the Century Project at the same time."

The photographer has no idea how many minds and attitudes he's changed through his work. He wears a counter around his neck at his exhibits, which he unobtrusively clicks as people enter — there've been tens of thousands, all told — but he doesn't quiz attendants on the way out. He does, however, set out a comments box, which invariably fills with responses and model requests. By the final day of one recent exhibit, fifty women had volunteered to be photographed.

While exposure certainly has made Cordelle's task easier, it's taken him a quarter century to get to this point, and he's hoping the project doesn't take half a century to complete. The first book contains 97 photos of women of 58 different ages. For the next book, he aims to shoot all new photos. Besides filling in the age gaps — "I call myself the Century Project, so I've got to get to somebody with a three-digit age," he says — he hopes to find a woman who has undergone genital mutilation, a domestic-violence victim whose body still bears the evidence, a pregnant teen, and greater diversity. He still expects to encounter what he calls "wild card" subjects — women whose riveting histories extend well beyond his wish list.

The photographer has no grand expectations that his initial book will change the world, but the added publicity could broaden his access to potential models and help him to finish his endeavor sooner rather than later. He can't say what, exactly, he means by "finish," but he's not worried. "It will tell me," he says of the project. "I know that sounds kind of vague, but I have complete faith in the fact that it will tell me when it's done."

Bodies and Souls certainly won't make Cordelle rich. It isn't the sort of book most people would leave on their coffee table. And while his work may have touched the lives of countless viewers, he's still a bachelor living in a rented room at age 63. During his Lupin Lodge visit, when someone questioned why he doesn't undertake a male version of the project, Cordelle replied candidly: "There's a point at which I need to do something different and get a life."

His response was serious. Yet perhaps if Cordelle one day reaches the century mark himself, he will look back and realize that, sure enough, he's had a life all along. In fact, he has changed the course of history for at least two people: women who divulged to him that they were suicidal before seeing his exhibit, that it literally saved their lives. It's something he frequently reflects upon, even as he wonders when he'll again have a house of his own, and maybe even a family beyond the women he's photographed, whom he's come to think of as just that. He knows it might have been wise to put the project on hold for a few years here and there to hustle for high-paying work, but he doesn't regret the path he's taken. "There have been so many strong responses along the way that I just could not have walked away."

Frank Cordelle traded a steady paycheck for what might have been an ordinary, if creative, career. Nearly four decades later, only he remains to be convinced that he does have a life. And that it's an extraordinary one.


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