Beautiful Bodies

I’ve been following Jade Beall’s “A Beautiful Body” Project for the past few months. The photography project focuses on women’s bodies and the celebration of women’s bodies, just the way they are. No photoshop, no hiding the stretch marks or scars, no thinning, no lifting – just the way women are in every day life.

The photographer is a distant associate and has been shooting these for the past couple of years. Only the past few days, her work has begun to gain media attention. 

Just below the link of her recent article was a post from Vogue magazine about some cosmetic cream and it featured two nude women (the photograph and the content, surprisingly, was removed after a few minutes and no link could be found to it on their website either). But in the few minutes it was there, juxtaposition of the two images hit me quite strongly. Here is a post about tanning cosmetics using natural products or some such thing – no reason why there had to be two nude women (very artistically shot, of course) while another photographer is trying very hard to depict women as beautiful, just the way they are.

There has been a lot of debate about how women are depicted by the media and in the fashion fraternity. Some small circles even tried to get a law against using models below a particular age and weight. 

But most people who I know in the fashion world will object to using ‘healthy’ models. I’m not talking fat here. I’m talking about women who resemble the women on the street.

The reason – this is fashion and it is supposed to have an aspirational value. And these clothes do look better with the right make up and the right frame, which is the thinner frame. It is like it is hanging in your closet and it would look awesome there. 

Photographs by people like Jade would remain just that – a photography project. While scores of women around the world might appreciate the project and even volunteer to be shot, they go back to poring over the pages of fashion magazines and wishing they had better bodies.

We all wish we had better bodies, even the ones who say they are comfortable with what they have. There are moments when you look at a dress and wish you were a little taller, a little fatter, a little thinner, a little fairer, a little less hairier… And if you the pundits, they would say that “this is how it is supposed to be”.

Well groomed has come to include a whole bunch of things that are barely even relevant. Frieda’s bushy eyebrows made news and a movie, But bushy eyebrows were out of vogue and frowned upon till supermodels such as Cara Delevinge and a parade of actresses made it the ‘in’ thing for 2013. Tons of women around the world are probably cheering and throwing their tweezers into the fire. Everyone knows that one of the most painful things about grooming is getting your eyebrows done. You can live with the pain for your upperlip, but the eyebrow… that delicate, thin skin about your eye that is meant as a thin shield? But somewhere down the line, somebody who never had much eyebrow hair made it ‘cool’ to have pencil thin eyebrows. And the rest of the women around the world followed suit, eyes squinting in pain. 

It remains funny and a mystery how and why women follow these painful fashion trends so painstakingly and ignore their real selves completely.


Norman Parkinson

It was absolutely empty and the guard on duty reluctantly switched on the lights and the light sitar music.

The Norman Parkison Exhibition at Tasveer Art Gallery.

It had been a long time since I stepped into an art gallery. Exhibitions seemed a little boring, particularly minus the discussions, which I could never make it to.

I had not heard of Norman Parkinson before I heard about this exhibition. Fashion photography is not something I particularly lean towards, or least did not before today.

Parkinson’s photographs were quite illuminating. At first glance, it might seem like you’ve seen it all.

And then you realise that these photographs are at least 50 years old, shot on an analog… 35 mm? and did not have the magic of photoshop. When you add that to your perspective, things change.

I still do not know much about him other than what was on the little notice board there and what little was available on Wikipedia. But I did realise that I liked his sense of humor in photographs and the juxtaposition of his models with the stark Indian background. In some cases, it made the photograph too studied, like the one with a white model, a dark, average Indian kid with temples in the background and white pillars. The contrast seemed to stark and too strong.

My favorite were Wendy and the Cow, it conveyed humor and a sense of a memsahib on her rounds on unfamiliar grounds. I wondered about his technique… and realised that much of that format is still being followed, even if with a harder edge.

Some of that belief comes from watching some recent episodes of Next Top Model. I watch that for the photograph and often wonder what is the point of such juxtapositions. Many models and situations do not appeal to me, yet they are judged the best. Maybe I have much to learn in that area yet…

What did I learn from Parkinson?

That humor is important. Sharp lines, clean lines, the importance of background and clutter. The unreality of a situation mixed with humor can create quite an impression.

True, I probably expected more stronger photographs. But are photographs of old women, young boys and huge landscapes the only form of real art? It is easy to see the strong wrinkles of the face of a Tibetan woman, the innocent smile of a young monk, the sweeping slopes of a desert and the sting of a scorpion in sharp contrast.

Juxtaposition takes a lot more thinking, I realised, even if it isn’t my thing. Several people can think about placing objects against each other. But to create an impact, it needs to have the right amount of contrast. Not shock and awe. Just an impact. Perhaps that is what Mr.Parkinson was trying to do. Perhaps even tell a story… though I felt a little pulled back into the days of the Raj with his photos. These are posed and yet make you ask why is the woman there with the umbrella in what seems to be a market? Why is the woman there with the steps and was she overtaken by the young monks? Who are the people in the boat in the background?

Were these aspects that were planned and included in the photo or just happenstance?

My love for street photography invades some ideas here… and I have to remind myself that this is a ‘planned’ photoshoot. But if it makes one ask such questions, is its purpose achieved? Is the purpose of fashion photography merely showcasing pretty clothes and women or creating an impact, a sense of mystery and story in that particular image?

Even if I was not blown away by his work, it was intriguing enough to bring these questions to mind. And I guess that is purpose solved.