Saturday, 17 May 2008

Truth and beauty: a matter of comfort

I've been catching up on some reading and news this week. 3 things that I read all came together for me dealing with the whole idea of beauty and the human form.

First up, Lucian Freud has just become the most expensive living artist. A full-size nude selling for $17million. That's not the interesting thing for me, though, rather the subject: a large woman reclining.

Second is the random excellence post at T.O.P. on Sanders McNew, who has produced a series of (mostly) nude photographs of ordinary women (ordinary being a somewhat advised term here). It is an interesting collection where I think the most revealing thing is that pretty women photograph well, regardless of make-up and post-production.

Which leads nicely to the third item, the article on Pascal Dangin, retouch artist extraordinaire. It is really an expose piece on the efforts that go into commercial photography to produce the "perfect" look. One little snippet was particularly revealing for me: even the Dove "natural Beuaty" campaign (real women, real bodies) gets significant retouching.

What on earth has all this in common? For me it brought together the whole notion of what makes a picture of the human body beautiful? It is not just about the form itself but the means to capture and present it. The Freud painting shows a woman obivously comfortable in her own form, relaxed and at ease. After 9 months of sittings, you'd hope so. "At first, I was a little bit embarrassed but after a while I just got used to it" - says it all.
Likewise, McNew's work shows relaxed, comfortable women. He clearly spent a lot of effort on getting the models comfortable in front of the camera. These appear to be nice, friendly people - women you'd like to know.

I think it is this degree of comfort with being pictured that then exudes the beauty. However, the commercial world that Dangin inhabits goes, for me, a step to far. Suddenly the models have gone past comfort and into confident - maybe towards arrogance. they're unobtainable and for me, the images become entirely forgettable - dismissed in a moment.

Therein lies the trick of street photography and good portraiture: people relaxed and comfortable with the setting and themselves. Aware of (maybe), but not pandering to, the camera.

On that note, their is also what looks to be an interesting exhibition coming up at Tate Modern in London on photography of people - comparison of documentary street work and more posed portraiture. Might be worth a look.

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