On beauty

April 07, 2023  •  Leave a Comment

I've been thinking a lot lately about the nature of "beauty."

In the context of photography, it's not useful to talk about "inner beauty," because photography by its very nature is the capture of visible (or sometimes other forms of) light. A photograph does not care if you're a beautiful person "inside."

Nevertheless, it is far too reductive to define beauty in purely aesthetic terms. And inner beauty can shine through in subtle and powerful ways.

Rest and Upheaval (2018)Rest and Upheaval (2018)Rest and Upheaval
6I8A5363 (09-17-2020)
Rialto Beach, Olympic National Park, Washington
2021-05-02 Pirin Salon (Razlog, Bulgaria) (Nude PIDC): Accepted
2021-05-29 MTN Photo Salon (Kolkota, India) (Nude PIDM): Judge's Choice
2021-06-30 Marika Magazine (published in Toronto, Canada) (Summer 2021): Published
2021-07-02 Hilliard Gallery (Kansas City, Missouri), "14th Annual Contemporary Figurative Show": Exhibited
2021-07-05 Moscow International Foto Awards (online contest based in Moscow, Russia) (Amateur Nude), as part of a 7-photo series titled "Rest and Upheaval": Honorable Mention
2021-07-30 3 Square Art Gallery (Fort Collins, Colorado), "Figure That!": Exhibited with a Gold Award
2021-10-15 Kladovo Summer Circuit (Cuprija and Kladovo, Serbia; Vidin, Bulgaria) (Nude Mono PIDM): Accepted; Salon Gold (Cuprija)
2021-11-20 Shadowhunter Circuit (Serbia, Croatia, Malta, and Montenegro) (Nude PID): Accepted; Salon Silver (Croatia); Salon Ribbon (Serbia); DIPA Diploma (Montenegro)
2021-11-29 Clickerz International Salon (Kolkata, India) (Nude PIDC): Certificate of Merit
2021-11-30 Photo Fest Bitola (Bitola, Macedonia) (Nude PIDC): IAAP Bronze Medal
2022-02-19 to 03-12 House of Shadows Creative Gallery & Market (Tampa, Florida), "XPlicit IV: Erotic Art": Exhibited and Sold
2022-01-15 Man and Work (Zajecar, Serbia) (Free Monochrome PIDM): FIAP Honorable Mention
2022-03-21 Artistic Creations Circuit (India) (Open Monochrome PIDM): PSA Gold Medal
2022-05-15 PX3 Prix de la Photographie Paris (Amateur Nude, series): Honorable Mention
2022-09-12 CAS Photo Academy (India) (Monochrome): Merit Medal Award
2022-10-25 Bosnia (Open Monochrome): Salon Diploma
2022-11-20 ND Photo Awards (ndawards.net) (Non-Professional Fine-Art Nudes): Honorable Mention
2022-11-26 Black and White Spider Awards (Beverly Hills, CA) (Amateur Nude): Nomination
2023-01-06 to 31 The Glasgow Gallery of Photography (Glasgow, Scotland) (International Photography Exhibition: Monochrome): Exhibited
2023-01-17 Dodho Magazine (Barcelona, Spain) Nude Photography Awards: Best Images (top 25, "published in the book 'NUDE' to be released next February" and "exhibited for a year in our online gallery"
2023-04-21 to 23 Seattle Erotic Art Festival (Seattle, Washington): Exhibited and SOLD
2023-03-26 Vesta (Montenegro) (Open Monochrome PIDM): Accepted
Aesthetic beauty does exist, and artists have sought it for millennia. Art theory has identified patterns that are pleasing to the human brain, and art students learn about the "rule of thirds" and the "golden spiral" and leading lines and negative space and color theory and on and on. Photographers working with figure models make use of these principles to compose their photos. Models pose in ways that emphasize smooth lines and curves and angles that mirror and enhance those in the background. Properly positioned light, or proper positioning of the model within natural light, creates pleasing patterns of light and darkness.

There are aesthetic qualities of the human body that are also pleasing to the human brain. Leonardo da Vinci famously suggested that some of this was because the body conforms to some of the same geometric principles that we consider beautiful in general. Other qualities are more subjective. Most people find beauty in youth, smooth skin, toned muscles. Many people find beauty in the curves of pregnancy, the large eyes of childhood. Some cultures (and individuals, obviously) revere different body shapes: busty or petite, voluptuous or lanky. Standards change over time, even from decade to decade. Some may have a biological basis (those associated with fertility or parental bonding, for example) while others are social preference (such as breast and waist size). Some may reflect a preference for those who look similar to oneself and may be influenced by darker social undercurrents like racism and xenophobia. Others may merely be personal preferences, based on conscious or subconscious associations with good or bad memories. And some are inexplicable.

The cliffs of Discovery (2015)The cliffs of Discovery (2015)The cliffs of Discovery
6I8A4573 (2015-08-08)
Lillias Right
Discovery Park, Seattle, Washington
2023-01-15 Celebration Circuit (India) (Open Color PIDC): Accepted in 2 of 4 judgings; Chairman Choice certificate
2023-02-01 DPW SBM Circuit (Serbia) (Open Color PIDC): Accepted at Serbia
2023-04-02 Foto Fiesta Circuit (India) (Open Color PIDC): Accepted in all 3 judgings
2023-05-01 DPW Four Country Circuit (Serbia) (Woman Man Child PIDC): Accepted in Croatia
2023-08-01 DPW Summer Circuit (Serbia) (Woman): Accepted in Aleksinac
I often wonder, if we ever make contact with beings from other worlds, how much their aesthetic would overlap with our own. Would brains that evolved on different planets, in different conditions, have completely different tastes in art? I think the geometric principles would be far more likely to overlap than the more subjective standards. Though even then, eyes that see different wavelengths of light, brains that evolved to notice different patterns and details than our own, would surely see things completely differently.

Even on our own planet, would a hawk (if it had a more sophisticated brain) look at a digital photograph and obsess over the pixels that are so obvious to its refined vision? Would a dog completely miss the nuances of color, while a butterfly would laugh at how simplistic they are? Part of the reason we can even have "standards" of beauty, as humans, is because we share roughly the same equipment to see and evaluate it: the same eyes, the same basic brain wiring. And the elements that make an image beautiful are standard enough that artists can be trained to recognize and reproduce them, and thus you can have art critics and photo contests. There's still enough subjectivity that it's worth having multiple judges look at the same image, in order to build a consensus, but some works do naturally rise to the top as supreme examples of a collective definition of beauty.

A lot of artists work entirely, or mostly, within this definition of beauty. Their goal is to create aesthetically pleasing images, with great colors and ideal proportions and perfect composition. They work with models who exemplify the standards of physical beauty, women who are young and fit and, often, tall, pale, and large-breasted, with unblemished skin and archetypal features.They pose them in perfect settings with perfect light, and then post them on Instagram or use them to sell cosmetics.

Form (2017)Form (2017)Form
6I8A6307 (2020-03-16)
Shasta Wonder
Lynnwood, Washington
2021-10-21 Varadinum Photographic Salon (Oradea, Romania) (Open Monochrome PIDM): Accepted
2021-11-20 Shadowhunter Circuit (Open Monochrome PIDM) (Croatia, Malta, Montenegro and Serbia): Accepted; Master of Light Bronze Medal (Croatia)
2022-01-15 Man and Work (Free Monochrome PIDM), Zajecar, Serbia: Accepted
2022-04-11 Kanva Circuit (India) (Open Monochrome PIDM): Accepted
I'm being facetious, especially since I make those images myself. There's a lot of satisfaction in working with a beautiful woman to create beautiful compositions in beautiful settings. Those images look great on the wall in a gallery or home, and they give the viewer a sense of joy. Something in our brains responds to this kind of beauty in a very direct and straightforward way. Beauty + human brain = satisfaction.


There is a second kind of beauty that is more complicated, that requires more engagement with the mind of the viewer, that involves complex interpretation of context and expression and non-verbal communication. It's the kind of beauty that comes from connecting with the story behind the image, not just the surface elements visible in it.

It's much more intangible and much harder to define. Examples are easier.

Alt.Pixie (2012)Alt.Pixie (2012)Alt.Pixie
6I8A0531 (4/15/2018)
Seattle, Washington

2016-04-22 Seattle Erotic Art Festival (Seattle, Washington): Exhibited
2018-04-21 Peoria Art Guild (Peoria, Illinois), "Nude Attitude": Exhibited
2019-04-26 Rochester Erotic Arts Festival: Exhibited digitally
When you look at a photo of a wizened old woman, someone who looks like she could be 100 years old, her skin wrinkled like a rasin, her teeth falling out, but with a huge smile on her face as she hugs a child that might be her great-great-granddaughter, there is a beauty there that comes from recognizing the joy and love of that human bond, and the connection between the experience of a long life and the freshness of a new one.

When you look at a photo of someone who has survived a great cataclysm, their body broken and scarred, but you see in their face the strength and resolve that comes from overcoming tragedy and moving forward, there is beauty there, because you recognize and celebrate the courage of spirit it takes to get to that place.

When you look at a photo of a nude woman two hundred pounds over the typical weight of someone her size, with stretch marks from giving birth and lines of age around her eyes, her breasts no longer pert, her hair thin, but her gaze is steady and confident, and you know that she is a force to be reckoned with, there is beauty that comes from her whole being, not just in spite of what some would see as physical imperfections, but because of them.

You have no power over me (2018)You have no power over me (2018)You have no power over me
6I8A8303 (2018-09-10)
Bowie Monroe
Bellevue, Washington
2021-05-01 Black Box Gallery (Portland, Oregon), "Focus: Portraiture": Exhibited
2021-06-19 Praxis Photo Arts Center (Minneapolis, Minnesota), "Femalia": Exhibited
2021-10-13 Shadowhunter Circuit (Portrait PIDC) (Croatia, Malta and Serbia): Accepted
2021-11-29 Clickerz International Salon (Portraiture PIDC) (Kolkata, India): Accepted
2022-04-29 to 30 Rochester Erotic Arts Festival (Auburn, New York): Digital exhibition
2022-06-10 to 07-21 A Smith Gallery ("she") (Johnson City, Texas): Exhibited
2023-07-01 Shots Magazine ("Love & Truth") (St. Paul, MN): Published in issue 160
2023-07-08 PSA Pictorial Divisions Exhibition (Digital Monochrome Portrait): Accepted
This kind of beauty can be harder to capture well on camera, because it takes more than simply manipulating physical elements according to geometric principles. You have to communicate, you have to tell a story, and to do that, you have to use every element of the image to reinforce your message, from setting to posture to captured action to expression and micro-expression. A piece of jewelry, the glisten in an eye, the way the light catches a half-hidden scar, a faded tattoo, a slight part in the lips, a cat looking out the window in the background -- all of these things, and a million more, go into telling the story.

You Say That I Am (2019)You Say That I Am (2019)You Say That I Am
B75A0408 (10-12-2020)
Lior Allay
Freeway Park, Seattle, Washington
2021-11-30 Photo Fest Bitola (Bitola, Macedonia) (Open Monochrome PIDM): Accepted
2022-02-19 to 03-12 House of Shadows Creative Gallery & Market (Tampa, Florida), "XPlicit IV: Erotic Art" (as "Proof"): Exhibited
2022-04-29 to 30 Rochester Erotic Arts Festival (Auburn, New York) (as "Proof"): Digital exhibition
2023-04-21 to 23 Seattle Erotic Art Festival (Seattle, Washington) (as "Proof"): Exhibited
Sometimes the point of the story isn't to be beautiful at all. Sometimes the story is one of tragedy, or righteous anger. Or patriotism, or joy, or lust. Or a million other possibilities. And the photo is judged not just by its aesthetic elements, but also by its effectiveness at communicating its message.

But within the photo, if it is of a person, there is often great beauty, which comes from the viewer recognizing something in the subject of the photo that they value and respect and honor. It may be something as universal as love, or strength of character, or resolve, or passion, or endurance in the face of pain. Or it may be something very specific and personal, a recognition that the person in the photo has experienced something that the viewer understands from having experienced it in their own life.

Somewhere in the pixels, the photographer has managed to capture not just surface geometry, but also a bit of the human soul; and that bit of soul touches the soul of the person viewing the image, forms a connection, and sparks the same reaction in the brain that says "this is beauty" that occurs with a perfectly composed photo of a sunset. Except that often this form of beauty is even more powerful. And often more specific: two people may pass the same photo in a gallery, with one glancing at it and moving on, and the next overwhelmed by emotion.

Together (2017)Together (2017)Together
6I8A3219 (5-14-2022 B&W)
Lior Allay and Cyndical
Discovery Park, Seattle, Washington
2022-08-15 Foto Art Super Circuit (India) (Open Monochrome): Accepted in one of three judgings
2022-12-26 Colour Pixels Circuit (India) (Open Monochrome): Accepted in 2 of 3 judgings
2023-05-07 Pirin (Bulgaria) (Open Monochrome PIDM): Accepted
It's important to note that this kind of beauty is not limited to human figures. I have several landscape photos and paintings in my home that elicit powerful emotions in me, which arise not merely from their technical composition but also from the moods they invoke and the memories of similar places I've visited at similar times of day, in similar seasons, in similar weather.

But this meditation is on human beauty, and what makes a person beautiful. And the truth is that every person has the capacity for beauty. It doesn't matter if that person could be mistaken for a movie star or supermodel, or if that person is as physically opposite that stylized ideal as it's possible to be. It doesn't matter if the person is black, or white, or something in between; if they are male, or female, or both, or neither; if they are a woman with tiny breasts or a man with big ones; if they have smooth skin or tattoos or scars; if they use a walker or a wheelchair to get around; if they are 18 or 118 years old, with lush, beautiful hair or none at all, a clean shaven man or a hirsute woman, fit or fat or skinny or curvy or all of the above in unusual combinations. Every person has the capacity for love, and is worthy of being loved. Every person has the capacity for confidence and courage and generosity and joy, and all of the other things that make us beautiful.

It is the task, the challenge, and the privilege of a portrait or figure photographer to capture that beauty, and to share it with the world.


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