What is beauty, where does it stem from, and how do we obtain it? These are eternal questions; riddles pondered by queens, princesses, mothers, daughters, experts and scholars throughout time.
I have been in the beauty business for the better part of twenty years, both in-front-of and behind the lens. It was only when I became a dedicated photographer and was charged with capturing the essence of beauty in everything I train my lens on, however, that it truly dawned on me what the secret to real beauty is. Until then, I, like most people, had been suckered into upholding modern society’s notion of beauty. The truth is that what most of us call beautiful is merely the current cultural definition of pretty. Strong cheekbones, a slender body type and vibrant hair color are without a doubt all outer measurements of certain levels of attractiveness. We all know people who are pretty but not beautiful. We also know people who would not be described as classically pretty but are undeniably beautiful. You’ve heard it said a million times before; beauty comes from within. So what does that mean? How can you harness your own beauty? How can you exude it in a photograph, and even more importantly in your everyday life?
True beauty comes from the way you smile, sound and shimmy. We are made to be unique; our imperfections make us special.
Defining beauty has been a holy grail for countless cultures throughout time, each putting their own spin on the notion of beauty, often with dreadful and even life-threatening consequences.
In ancient China, up until the past century, there was something in vogue called the lotus foot, achieved by breaking a young woman’s toes and binding them under her feet to make them look as small as possible. It was widely thought that small feet looked attractive, demure, and modest. Well, it certainly was humbling—but for all the wrong reasons. My wife’s great-grandmother had her feet bound, and it caused her great pain throughout her life.
Ancient Egyptians, Romans, and Persians loved big, sparkling eyes, and to achieve the look, applied black makeup laced with a deforming heavy metal that caused eye injury as well as facial deformations.
During the Elizabethan period in England, big foreheads were all the rage (or should I say “rash”?). Women would actually pluck the hair out of the front of their head to create the look. If that weren’t bad enough, the Elizabethan ladies also liked to cover their skin in an early form of foundation that was heavily lead based, often resulting in disfiguring scars and a lack of bowel control; how attractive!
Today of course, not only do we retouch our exteriors with a cacophony of makeup routines, we also go under the knife and actually cut away parts we don’t like while adding bits we do. That’s not to say reconstructive surgery can’t be very beneficial; I’m sure many of those Elizabethan chicks would have loved a face-lift after the makeup routine they were using.
The Pythagoreans had a theory which is still in discussion today believe it or not, called the golden section, which essentially says you can measure beauty by a set of mathematical proportions. Demonstrated by famous artworks like Leonardo’s Mona Lisa and Virtruvian Man as well as Michelangelo’s David, it is a rigid formula for attractiveness that suggests that certain measurable elements—say, the distance between your cheekbones, the length and breadth of your nose, or the size of your eyes compared with the depth of your brow—can make you more physically attractive. Although doesn’t that point to an averageness that is boring and uninspiring? After all, we are not frozen statues; we are living, breathing people! Sure, you can find symmetry on someone’s face when it is static, but get them to smile, frown, or just plain move and that symmetry changes in accordance with, for example, how confident they are at smiling. What someone looks like in motion— their body language—plays a big role in whether we find that someone attractive.
True beauty comes from the way you smile, sound and shimmy. We are made to be unique; our imperfections make us special. Even in sunlight, which is surely the perfect example of spontaneity, power, energy and life, there is asymmetry—bursts, movements, waves.
Modern beauty concepts that glorify the super young, unhealthily skinny models with Photoshopped flawless unobtainable skin are not only misguiding, but they are no more a measure of true beauty, in my opinion, than plucked foreheads and tiny clubfeet. Real beauty—and this comes from years of searching for it and trying to photograph it—exists in everyone.
I’d argue that the true measure of beauty is, in fact, the measure of the emotion it stimulates. In other words, maybe you can’t help but judge yourself against the current model physique—some girl five feet ten inches tall, weighing in at 115 pounds, with perfect teeth, who can glide down a runway as if she first learned to walk with six-inch heels on. Maybe, in your initial awe, you find yourself wishing you were slimmer or taller or more curvaceous than you are. As outwardly attractive as she may be, however, I promise you that what has attracted you to her is directly connected to whether she is confident, compassionate, honest, charming or energetic, for example. A model might have the looks to strut her stuff down a catwalk, but only when outer beauty is paired with other attributes of inner beauty does a woman resonate as truly gorgeous.
As a photographer, I work in many areas of the business. In fashion, I shoot young models; in portraiture I shoot actors, musicians, and politicians. Further, my favorite medium is looking for beauty in real-life situations, like in the slums of Haiti, AIDS clinics in Tanzania, or the ice floes of eastern Canada. It’s my job to nurture, coax, or seduce the beauty from my subject, whoever and wherever they may be. I often instruct my subjects to try to forget about the camera and engage them in conversation while shooting them, so that I can capture those in-between moments. You’ve seen them in real life; they are real moments of beauty. When you look across the room and see someone laughing, just being themselves, in that moment, simply because of say the way they move, you fall for them. If you can capture that moment on camera you have captured magic.