The Bowdlerization of Beauty: Anatomy of an April Fool’s Day Prank

Passiflora Tendril and Leaf Tip ©Mike Spinak

A few days ago, I posted about an amazing new Photoshop action I’d created, which corrects every photo problem portrait photographers encounter, guaranteed.

Hopefully, you all had a good laugh.

Those familiar with my photography or writing won’t be surprised that I intended more to my April Fool’s Day prank than just silliness. So, now that the joke has run its course, it’s time to heavy-handedly explain what it was really about.

The lesser of the two points of that post was this:

Application of Photoshop actions is not a substitute for good photography.

That point doesn’t require much explanation, so I won’t belabor it.

The greater point is not so easy, so please be patient as you read the rest. In order to explain it, I’m going to start by sharing a rather intimate anecdote of how this first came to my attention.

A few years ago, I was involved with a woman whom I loved dearly. While we were involved, she made a set of nude self portraits, as a present for me. After we broke up, she had a set of nude portraits done professionally. For whatever reason, she went out of her way to make sure I saw them.

She looked stunning in the professionally made pictures – which is no surprise, because she’s gorgeous, and the hired pro was skillful at what he does. In one sense, the pictures were a success, with no cause for complaint.

However, these pictures saddened me. I viewed them in comparison to (1) the woman I know, and (2) the nude self portraits she made for me. (By the way, she is an extraordinary, expressive photographer, in her own right.)

What I saw in these pictures was that the photographer’s method of expressing beauty consisted, in large part, in hiding perceived flaws. For example, his pictures all either showed her torso from the side, or showed her with her long hair draped over one of her breasts. It reminded me of how, before the first time she’d ever undressed in front of me, she self-consciously told me – almost apologetically – that one of her breasts was a little smaller than the other. Of course, she was perfect just the way nature made her, but she was uncomfortable about assymetry, even though it’s perfectly normal, and irrelevant to her beauty. The hired photographer, either on her request or because of his own views, had clearly posed her so as to hide any assymmetry of her breasts. He also desaturated the picture, and fooled around with the color channels and with toning, to de-emphasize her freckles. Her entire body is covered with tiny freckles, everywhere. It’s part of who she is, and looked good on her, but in his photos, freckles were something to be hidden. He also retouched her skin, basically making her skin texture disappear. Again, I’d viewed the texture of her skin as lovely, but in his photos, it was something to be removed. She has a scar on her chin from a car crash, and all these photos were carefully taken either from the other side of her face, or keeping the scarred area in shadow. I’d enjoyed this scar as part of the history of how she came to be who she is, written upon her body.

His concept of beauty seemed to be an “absence of perceived flaws”. His methodology of depicting beauty seemed to be centered upon excluding flaws, until nothing but an idealization was left.

Furthermore, her expressions in the photos were merely expressions for the camera. Sure, she has a lovely face, and so the expressions on her face were also lovely, but – I’m not sure how to put it. They could have just as easily been someone else on the inside, because they showed nothing of the essence of who she is.

For me, that held fairly little appeal.

In comparison to the self portraits she took for me, these professional pictures paled. In the self portraits she’d made just for me, she showed a frontal view of both her breasts, showed her freckles, her skin texture, her scars, and so on – showed them unabashedly, because she knew I saw her as perfect just the way she is. And in her pictures for me, she had real expressions on her face – expressions that were truly and deeply characteristic of her.

The professional pictures of her are merely nude. The self-portraits of her are truly naked. The pro pics expressed beauty through obscuring. Her self portraits expressed beauty through revealing. In the pro pictures, she’s photographed as a model. In the self portraits, she’s photographed as a complete person. The pro pictures are trivially engaging. The self portraits are truly moving.

I’d long felt that most depictions of beauty which I see don’t work well for me personally, as a viewer, and are not the way I want to show beauty, as a photographer. However, I couldn’t articulate my thoughts very specifically, until I saw these two sets of photos in comparison to each other. It was then that I realized that most photographers work toward showing beauty based on an operational definition that beauty is the absence of (perceived) flaws in the subject; therefore, they try to show beauty by obscuring flaws.

This is what my April Fool’s Day prank was really about. I was satirizing the concept of beautification through obscuration of flaws by showing the absurdity of it at its logical extreme.

Beauty through obscuration is lesser than beauty through revelation.

You might ask: “Why not both hide the problems and reveal the beauty?”

Sir Francis Bacon famously said, “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness of proportion”. And it’s true. The “strangeness of proportion”, what some may perceive as problems or flaws, are usually an essential component of the beauty, itself; the “flaws” draw focus, making one look more closely, and they give the beauty character, depth, and uniqueness.

Hiding people’s “flaws” in their portraits reduces the potential from great beauty to mere beauty, and usually from great photography to merely good photography.

Beyond the role of strangeness of proportion in great beauty: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”, as John Keats observed. It’s far more powerful to show that someone is truly beautiful by showing the beauty in her as she really is than to show someone as beautiful by showing a stripped down, sanitized, vapid idealization of her.

Authentic beauty is ultimately more compelling than bowdlerized and/or doctored beauty. This goes not just for people portraiture, but for all areas of photography.

If you look closely through my nature pictures, you’ll see all kinds of things which could perhaps be viewed as blemishes upon the beauty of the subjects. For example, in my picture Passiflora Tendril and Leaf Tip, shown at the top of the page, you can see that the tip of the leaf is dead and brown. When I first had this picture drum scanned from the slide, the person who did the scan and made the test print took the initiative of digitally removing that dead leaf tip. As it turned out, the picture was weaker without that tiny imperfection. I had him put it back. I don’t hide or remove such things in my pictures. Perhaps counterintuitively, these add to the depth of the beauty and meaning.

The issue of obscuration versus revelation as a means of showing beauty goes deeper than merely what things look like. As Aristotle rightly noted, “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance”. This is ultimately what I mean by “revelation” as a means of showing beauty – the revealing of the inward significance. Bowdlerization can only lead away from significance, not toward it. Obscuration versus revelation is a clash between form and substance. The act of beautifying through expurgating blemishes is a step toward making a photo about form over substance, yet the significance a picture represents is tied to its substance, and the most profound beauty is tied to the significance.

In the always pithy words of the renowned photographer Huy Nguyen, in reply to me about this topic: “Our bodies are not our beauty.” And in the words of Paul Strand, “It is one thing to photograph people. It is another to make others care about them by revealing the core of their humanness”.

Of course, it’s much harder to represent the inward significance of things than their outward appearances. It requires a more observant and contemplative approach. Hard as it is, at least knowing what you can aim for can help you start in that direction.

Passiflora Tendril and Leaf Tip

All pictures and text are © Mike Spinak, unless otherwise noted. All pictures shown are available for purchase as fine art prints, and are available for licensed stock use. Telephone: (831) 325-6917.

  • Dani - Wow … this is amazing photo. Thanks for sharing.
    Best regards DaniReplyCancel

  • naturography - I appreciate you saying so, Dani.
    You’re welcome.ReplyCancel