Blimey I do go on about beauty a lot. But cut me some slack, I’m a photographer, of course I’m obsessed with beauty. Actually no, scratch that, so many photographers seem obsessed with money and don’t give a damn about beauty and what it might do deep within their creative souls. Anyway, back to me. I know what my job is really about. No matter what I’m taking photos of, whether at my Brighton studio or in the great outdoors, it’s beauty photography. My job is to find and capture images of beauty so that I can show others what I see through my lens. Since a lot of my work comes from paying customers, how do I therefore ensure that they’re all beautiful? Is beauty photography always possible? Or does beauty photography depend upon the subject being photographed?
Of course at this point I must remind you of an old saying which goes “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. It’s as true now as whenever it was first spoken or written down. It holds a special truth in any kind of beauty photography. But what does it mean?
Have you ever met someone who you didn’t find particularly attractive on that first meeting, but who you grew to like more and more, and as you grew to love them they became more and more beautiful? Or indeed the converse, where your relationship with someone beautiful falls apart, leaving you finding them uglier and uglier with every passing day. Since you can’t answer me before I write this next bit you’ll have to take it as a rhetorical question and I’ll have to assume you’ve answered “yes, how very insightful!”. But how, you might ask, does this have anything to do with beauty photography?
All this variable-beauty stuff rather suggest that it’s how we feel about something that makes us see beauty or ugliness. The emotions that surface from deep within when we see something or someone are entirely shaped and crafted by our experiences, and those emotions in turn shape and craft the way in which we see everything.
Prejudice Makes Beauty Photography Impossible
So let me take it a little further. Just admit to yourself that you’re prejudiced about something, just for a moment. Go on. Admit it. I know you’re prejudiced against something, everyone is – even if it’s Marmite, or egg-yolks, or industrial landscapes, or the snotty bit inside a tomato. There. See? So… you’re prejudiced. Now, imagine taking a photo of what you’re prejudiced against. Could you take a photo showing that thing’s beauty? If you’re a professional photographer who’s prejudiced in any way against gay people, could you photograph a civil partnership ceremony and find the love between two men or two women beautiful, and represent it as such photographically? Would you find the beauty in a size 24 bride? Or a disabled groom? If you’ve been a victim of racial abuse, could you still recognise the beauty in someone of the same race as your attackers? If we can’t see the beauty, how can we hope to do beauty photography? But if we can’t photograph the beauty, how can we take commissions from clients who present us with subjects we see as less than 100% beauty photography source material?
Industrial Architecture at Shoreham Harbour – not everyone’s idea of beauty photography!
One of the things I do when I teach photography is to help people see they’re full of prejudice, even if it’s mild prejudice. Then, once they’ve accepted it, I help them to overcome it. Some people labour under the misapprehension that they’re not at all prejudiced, because they have a multicultural group of friends, or because their parents aren’t racists. But then I’ll show them a scene or an object that’s not a natural photographic subject for them, and ask them to take a dynamic, interesting photograph of it. For some, it’s industrial wastelands; for others it’s fields of flowers; or crowds of people. Everyone fails to see beauty in at least one item of subject matter. Invariably they’ll say they can’t because it’s boring. There… spot the prejudice? I find new ones all the time, and it’s great fun helping people to learn to see the world through new, unprejudiced eyes. It’s essential if beauty photography is one’s goal.
Jon Silver is a Sussex photographer based in Brighton.