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How You Define Beauty And How It Defines Your Photographic Style

How You Define Beauty And How It Defines Your Photographic Style

Art is subjective. No matter how many books are written. No matter how many advancements in technology tout how the newest device will turn you overnight into a photographic Picasso. At the end of the day, art comes from you. The individual. It is a reflection of your voice and how you see the world. What are your hopes and dreams? Your fears and obsessions?

I recently heard someone say that “artists are just people who can’t accept the real world as it is.” A clever way of saying that we mold our reality into a heightened one. We create a world we personally desire to see. Or, at least we create a world we think other people should see.

We reflect our own ideals in our work. Our concept of beauty.

But what influences our perception of beauty?

If art itself is subjective, the definition of beauty can only be doubly elusive. The saying “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” didn’t arise by accident. And with some seven and a half billion people currently occupying this rounded sphere we call Earth, there are quite a few beholders to offer their description.

I remember early on in my career, when struggling with that eternal photographic quandary of “what is my style,” I found myself listening to an interview with Mario Testino, the famed celebrity and fashion photographer who seems to have shot more Vogue covers than many of us have shot photographs. The interviewer was asking Mr. Testino how he went about finding his own personal style early on and he offered some interesting advice. Rather than focus on a specific look, or a specific fashion style, he first focused on the model. He asked himself not what, but who did he find most interesting. Then he set about photographing that person, or alternate versions of that archetype, again and again and again. After a while, editors began to discern a certain style. A consistency throughout his work they could latch onto and began to offer him assignments.

Of course, he has gone on to create endless perceptions of beauty throughout his storied career, but it all began with him trying to identify his own conception of beauty.

Naturally our artistic approach encompasses far more than who we consider to have a pretty face. Our approach, and the world’s reaction to our perception of beauty, also calls into comment larger questions of society.

For instance, the fashion industry in known for, and often vilified for, the standard use of ultra thin women as models. The expected model body type is so standardized that to see anything else on the cover of a magazine is instantly considered to be “edgy.” Whole movements have developed to fight back and phrases like “zero is not a size” or “real women have curves” are unlikely to be unfamiliar to anyone in or outside of the industry.

But let us momentarily move beyond discussion of sample size dresses and certain logistical explanations for why models tend to be the same size. As both artists as well as world citizens, it is worthwhile for us to ask ourselves the even more relevant questions.

Why is it that we associate beauty only with one body type? Where did that start? How do we change that? Should we change that? Can we change that? Is it a learned preference? Or is there something hardwired into our DNA to prefer a certain type?

It’s worth noting that in many of the world’s cultures, past and present, the exact opposite has been true. Larger forms have been more desirable with the slender form being pushed to the margin.

Think about the type of man or woman you personally fancy. Does there tend to be a pattern in the type of person you are attracted to? What is that pattern? What do you suppose is the source of your response?

Is it because the men/women you grew up around had them same characteristics and you were subconsciously trained to find them attractive? Or, conversely, are you attracted to the exact opposite of the familiar forms around you? Excited by the possibility of newness rather than the celebration of the known.

Are you just reacting to what your immediate circle of friends or society finds attractive? If the people you trust the most continuously tell you that Veronica is prettier than Betty, and lambaste you for voicing any opposition, how long would it take an average person to accept society's opinion as truth?

Furthermore, there is an even more pressing question. If you are a Betty living in a world where everyone says only Veronicas are beautiful, what type of psychological effect does that have on you? What of all the other Bettys in the world? What becomes of those who are constantly told they are out of style?

Just to be clear, I am in no way suggesting one body type is superior to another. In fact, just the opposite. Attraction, like art, is purely subjective. And obviously, I am using physical beauty standards as merely a metaphor, but the same questions can be applied to all aspects of our own artistic view of the world.

Were you raised among a clan of comedians? Does that result in you creating art that shares humor with the world?

Do you live among the socially engaged, and view your art as a way to magnetize the world’s moral compass?

Are you a Betty? Do you want your work to reflect the diversity of beauty in the world rather reinforce the status quo?

And ultimately, what is the eventual affect on society of your decision? Can art change society? And then how will that changed society come to be reflected in your art?

No man or woman is an island. We all come from a certain set of circumstances unique to our own journey. These circumstances not only influence the direction of our lives but the directions of our art.

Taking a moment to look inward and reflect on our own influences can help to strengthen our understanding of ourselves. That understanding can help to bolster our artistic voice.

It will help us to shape (or reshape) the world one beholder at a time.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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Well written and very thought provoking! I have recently been thinking about these very things. Your article thrust me even deeper down the rabbit hole. I still haven't fully identified my style, however I have figured out/learned several things that relate to this article.

1. I enjoy being personable with whom-ever I work with. I try my best to build deep connections and those are valuable to me. However, sadly not everyone is willing to be real and open.

2. I enjoy shooting fitness when I can. I enjoy the warrior mentality and determination behind it. Mostly because I have battled through cancer & most recently fought back from a stroke. Therefore I personally can identify with the battle mentality (on a different level) .

3. I enjoy editorial concepts and having a more relaxed/personable shoot.

4. Many of the people I know and work with suffer from; depression, anxiety, eating disorders, health issues etc. Therefore we all should be a little more understanding towards others, and pause before we react in certain ways.


Thanks Bryan. Sounds like you are well on your way to identifying your style. You like to help people, which artist or not is something we should all focus on. You also have personal experience that adds perspective to your images and for your potential clients/subjects. A great approach.