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Photography project highlights 2 Alaskan centenarians

By Sierra Starks 7:05 AM January 8, 2015

Living to see 100 years old is not for the faint of heart. Capturing the essence of what it’s like to be a member of the coveted centenarian club is even harder — unless you’re photographer Danny Goldfield.

To Live 10,000 Years” is Goldfield’s photo project. The 47-year-old, who lives in Massachusetts, aims to photograph two people from each state — one man, one woman — who are at least 100 years old. Having already photographed faces in Maryland, New Jersey and Connecticut, Goldfield has made it clear: Have centenarians, will travel.

“At this point, I’m basically funding it on my own,” said Goldfield of the project. “And then, people are generous, like some people I know in Alaska.”

He’s referring to Stephanie Rebecca Patton, an Alaska-born woman who spent some time recording music in Washington, D.C. Patton’s family lives in Ketchikan.

“I was looking for a singer in Washington, D.C., because I started the project on the steps of the National Portrait Gallery,” Goldfield said.

To kick off the project, he had a vision to film someone singing “When You’re A Long, Long Way From Home” — it’s a fitting tune as it was written more than 100 years ago. But the vocalist couldn’t be Patton; she informed Goldfield that she had since moved to Seattle. Still, he needed her help.

“I said, well, the hardest subject to find would be a man from Alaska of all 100 people,” Goldfield said.

It’s true. Centenarians make up a very small portion of the nation’s total population, with only 53,364 of them reported in the 2010 Census numbers. The state of Alaska only has 40 centenarians (the lowest of all the states), and only about 17 percent of those are male.

“It was pretty awesome to be contacted by this photographer, Danny,” said Patton, adding that she was immediately on board to help. “I felt honored to be involved with such an honorable story.”

The 30-year-old did some research and stumbled upon an article in the Juneau Empire, a profile of Ketchikan resident Henry Neligan, who is now 102. Patton then put the article’s writer, Scott Bowlen, in touch with Goldfield.

A few months and an Alaska Airlines guest pass (courtesy of Patton’s father) later, and Goldfield was in Alaska, ready to make Neligan No. 8 on his list of centenarians. Patton, who was back in Alaska for the holidays, picked him up from the airport. It was their first time meeting in person.

“They were so incredibly generous,” said Goldfield of Patton’s family, who housed him for the trip in December. “Each night, the family had these nice dinner parties with people from the town.”

When word got out about his project, someone in town suggested he visit the Ketchikan Pioneer Home, a facility that houses older Alaskans in the community. It turns out the Pioneer Home had a few centenarians. And Margaret McCombs, who is 107 years old, would turn out to be No. 9 in “To Live 10,000 Years.”

“And the whole idea was, let’s see what happens,” said Goldfield of photographing McCombs. “So it was a dark, rainy, Alaskan morning, and we got in the car and drove over, and we’re sipping coffee waiting for her to wake up.”

When McCombs did wake up, the “lovely” two-hour photo shoot began, he says.

“She’s eating her breakfast, reading — like her eyesight’s still good enough that she can read,” he said. “And we just sat and I took a lot of photos.”

Patton joined Goldfield on the trip to take McCombs’ portraits.

“It was interesting to see how full of life she was,” Patton said. “She was smiling and laughing.”

And then there was Neligan, who Goldfield spent time with at the Ketchikan Indian Community (KIC) center. The photographer snapped some day-in-the-life shots of him — entering his apartment, riding in a van around town, chatting and eating.

Patton was also able to finally lend her voice to the project. Goldfield had tossed around the idea of she and Neligan, who’s also known for his voice, singing together.

“Henry had taught me a tune and we were singing,” Patton said. “We were singing a couple different songs, and one he was singing from memory, and I didn’t know it, but just him singing it a couple times, I kind of caught on.”

The song, she added later, was “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” a wartime marching song — a song the part-Alaska-Native man learned sometime in his 100-plus years on Earth.

“It’s amazing how some people live a long life, you know, and they just want to keep living,” Patton said. “It seems like you would reach a certain age and you would just be tired. But some people just have this life force inside of them and they just keep going.”

Goldfield says the reality of the “To Live 10,000 Years” project is that he’s meeting with and connecting with people who could very soon pass away. But a photograph lasts forever. And another thing that’s sticking with Goldfield as he ventures on to find the remaining centenarians for the project — what can’t quite be captured on film — is the Alaskan hospitality he experienced firsthand.

Goldfield’s project has since gained national media recognition. He says he now has dozens of emails from people around the country “nominating” special centenarians for him to photograph.

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