The word beauty brings to mind a set of visual images for me. I’m guessing this is, at least to some degree, a shared human tendency. I right away think of mountain landscapes, Arizona sunsets, the Sistine Chapel, my mountain bike and Marisa Tomei. The latter two being a bit more subjective, but difficult to argue just the same.
Even so, I wonder about beauty as more of a construct of thought than a set of pre-ordained social agreements about what looks, sounds, tastes, smells or feels great.
Most of the people who read this blog already know I’m a pro photographer. I actually have a bunch of different vocations that sort of wrap themselves in media…but photography is by far my favorite. I’m a fan of Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment. I approach shoots like I would a hunt. I don’t hunt, but finding images and capturing them is a really macho sort of pursuit wrap up in all the saintliness of a zen practice. What I want to catch is that instant in between two moments that are in motion. The one millisecond where some sort of truth is revealed about the subject. It doesn’t matter if I’m in a studio, on location or on a street. When the photo tells a story, I’ve won. If you know a tiny bit — or can use your magical thinking cap to create a tiny bit — about what came just before the photo and what will happen right after, I think I’ve done my job.
Here are few of my recent shots. Feel free to look through them, but please put them back in order when you’re done.
Now, photography can certainly be a form of beauty. From White’s industrial shapes to Mappelthorpe’s exquisitely charged bodies to Adam’s milky black skies to Newton’s sexy messy women, photography is a way to capture amazing beauty.
Digression + Confession: In my stock photography business and in portraiture I often use Photoshop to make people look different than they do in real life. Better? I can’t really say, but definitely more in line with society’s expectations of beauty. I lengthen necks, tuck tummies, enlarge eyes and irises, raise cheekbones, smooth curves, etc., etc. If you haven’t seen this video from Dove, check it out. And, yes, I do all that stuff. It’s a fantasy sort of expectation of beauty. Guilty. If you’re mad at me for being a part of the dehumanizing beauty cabal, I guess I’ll have to live with that. But, really, send me a message and let’s talk about it. It’s something I think about a lot.
So now that I’ve outed myself, let me just say that kind of beauty is not so valuable. If I can manage to make it happen with some lights, some really heavy cameras, some makeup, hairspray and about $600 worth of software, what is it really worth? Cheap thrill. Short-lived.
On the other hand, there can be something of the eternal in an image. Maybe the divine? Something you can enhance with post-processing, but you really can’t Photoshop in. I want to share three of my favorite pictures and tell you why I feel that way. Two are mine and one is from Cindy Sherman.
Somali Bantu Refugee
This is an image of a woman who lives in my home town of Tucson.
She’s part of a refugee community here of Bantu people who fled Somalia. I took this photo of her on a day I spent with them gleaning pumpkins after Halloween from a local organic farm. They gathered the pumpkins for the local food bank, and kept a small percentage of them for themselves. I often return to this as one of my favorite photos from my own portfolio.
I just think she has an amazing face and think the texture of her skin and her small smile speak volumes.
Notary – El Paso, 2005.
My choice here may perplex you a bit. It does me. It’s firmly in the tradition of street photography, which is not my usual thing – even though that’s what I was doing this day. It even has a sort of snapshot or accidental quality that just draws me back in. In fact, whenever I think of my favorite images of my own, this always comes up. Maybe it’s the “Notary” sign in front of the store selling bikinis and sexy dresses? Maybe it’s the fact that you know the store is called “Dave’s” even though you can only see three letters? Or the fact that “Dave” owns a joyería? Or that the word “joyería” (jewelry store) is just visible enough to spell the word “joy” on the wall. Or the frozen Blues Brother? Or the Spanglish? Even the fact that the woman is carrying pizza boxes. Where is she going? I think she works at a dentist office. I could be wrong. In any event, what I like about this photo is that I can sit with it for a long time and not get tired of it. I discover new things every time. Look in the window reflections or on the display shelves in the store. So much there…
Untitled Film Still #3 (1977).
If you were paying attention to your fellow bidders in the recent Christie’s auction, you know that Cindy Sherman’s print of Untitled #96 just sold for a cool 3.9 million. I’m sorry if you were outbid.
Maybe you can grab yourself an original when her Film Stills series comes up? This is my favorite Sherman self-portrait photo and maybe my favorite photo ever. It just oozes angst and ambiguity in a bland New York studio kitchen. I think the photo is a threat. After this, everything changes. Everything is in question. Consider the conflicting aspects of feminism/gender roles/consumerism/sexuality/voyeurism and even the idea of this somehow part of an even larger cinematic deception. Think about 1977…where had been and what we hoped for. Somehow I see it all focused down to this single plate of film.
So here are some questions I want to leave you with. What is beauty? Who gets to choose? Does beauty actually rely on being beautiful, or something else? What else? Where will you look for it? Where do you think you’ll find it?