Advertising and beauty photographs promoting an unnatural, narrow standard of beauty have been the target of a growing backlash from a culture inundated with perfectly produced visions of supposed perfection. A chief proponent of this resistance is the anti-Photoshop brigade, who finger digital post-production of images as a key driver of impossible standards and increasing stigma.
Artist Stephanie O’Connor takes issue with both sides of the argument in her challenging new exhibition, Release the Hounds, part of the 2015 Auckland Festival of Photography. Utilizing her skills as a professional retoucher, O’Connor has produced a series of portraits that defy the glossy magazine conventions of beauty, enhanced by the very post-production tools decried by critics of the beauty industry. She talks to D-Photo about walking that fine iconoclastic line.
D-Photo: Can you give us a brief description of your Release the Hounds exhibition?
Stephanie O’Connor: It’s a project I have been working on for over a year and a half now and still find deeply interesting! Hopefully it will be ongoing. The show involves 14 portraits of a diverse selection of women, shot up close in harsh blue and white light, each person subtly physically manipulated on their own volition and admission. My intention is to subvert the retouching genre technically and conceptually, and what we have come to expect from it, especially because I work in the thick of it. At the same time, this manipulation creates a second-self of each sitter, a variation on what we perceive and assume of ourselves. I find how it alters reality and perception fascinating, and it goes beyond the basic notion that ‘Photoshop is bad’, that we hear ad nauseam. I wanted to traverse more than just this idea — I wanted to embody the fundamental idea of the portrayal of women, and how that is effortlessly politicized.
The exhibition’s description emphasizes themes of femininity, identity, and beauty — how have you approached those subjects through these works?
Portraiture lends itself to the ideas of identity in its fundamental nature, but discussing femininity was intentional, and of course all the sitters are women. Femininity and beauty are malleable terms that aren’t endemic to women, but the political undercurrent in the work is associated with women for reasons that are evident in society, in myself, and also within my job as a retoucher. Each sitter breaks the fourth wall, which I think automatically confronts the viewer, which allows us to wonder about each person’s identity individually and then as a collective. I think I consciously wanted to berate the softness of fashion/beauty advertising by using powerful flash with no modifiers, it creates a texture that reveals pores, lines, and sweat. The blue light particularly has that iridescent oil feel, it creates a patchwork of tangibility and history. I liked challenging the word ‘flaw’ that is so often used. “Embrace your flaws” — it’s such a misnomer, and it's also pretty condescending. Who said they are flaws? By accentuating each sitter’s apparent ‘flaw’, it turned the notion in its head. I liked that it isn’t hushed, but enhanced without it being overtly noticeable.
What does the name Release the Hounds signify?
I kept experiencing a lot of women complaining of their noses. Of course I thought they all had fabulous noses — all different and unique and idiosyncratic. But once I started to manipulate them in post, it created a sort of hound-like aesthetic. Not overly so, but the enhancement became almost creaturely. Then there were complaints of ears, skin, eyes, etc. Anything outside of our realm of understanding somehow becomes ‘creaturely’ or ‘odd’. Also phonetically, the word ‘hound’ is so beautiful. ‘Release the Hounds’ as a sentence has a sort of comical nature, which I like. The work is serious, but I think it also functions on a more playful level where there is a levity to the images and the words, that’s why I liked the title. It is also quite recognizable in western pop culture, so it has the accessible nature.
Your aim to accentuate the subjects ‘flaws’ runs counter to traditional notions of portraiture — how did this affect the way you shot and processed the portraits?
Flaw is a difficult word, I prefer the word ‘insecurities’ for this project. But thanks for using it in inverted commas! As it should be. I’m not sure if it is traditional to portraiture, but it is certainly counter-advertising. I think photographing each sitter close up so they occupy the whole frame automatically gives them dignity, which is definitely traditional. In terms of process, I basically made the photo session of each woman a conversation rather than a quiet ‘photographer/model’ interpretation. I only shot about 10 photos of each person, I didn’t want to rattle off a thousand. I explained in detail what I was trying to achieve, so there were no smoke and mirrors. I just wanted it to be comfortable for everyone, and for it to be playful and interesting.
If I knew a photographer was going to create a portrait that focused specifically on my ‘flaws’, I imagine I’d feel quite uneasy. How did your subjects take to the concept?
All the women I photographed were incredible! And I agree with you! It is unnerving. But I never used the word ‘flaw’. Language is incredibly important. I wanted to get to know them, and then they would divulge something about themselves they were uncomfortable with or insecure about. Of course it’s so elusive, I would never agree with them. Which is so integral to the project, the idea that these supposed ‘flaws’ actually exist or are even flaws in the first place. Even when you look up flaw in the dictionary it is a depressing description.
The exhibition sets out to deconstruct the “perceived beauty ideals in our culture”. Why do these ideals need deconstructing?
I think everything is subject to critique and analysis, but I feel particularly aligned and passionate with this idea by being a woman, working in advertising, and having a strong network of politically engaged people in my life. It’s not particular to women feeling the pressure to be slim, or blonde, or big chested, it’s the notion that you should have to be anything at all that is dictated to you, and as a woman I get those constant contradictions of having to be curvy as well as slim, Caucasian as well as exotic. And these attributes begin to bleed into the idea of how women should be mentally as well, or what is ‘appropriate’.
There is a mother lode to deconstruct, it is an ongoing conversation. I like the mythical power that is created in the variation on each sitter, they effortlessly combat the idea of what we should or should not be, and what we think we are.
Is there a single image in the series that you feel is most powerful in terms of what you are trying to achieve?
Probably the main image, named ‘Clare’, which is my friend Emma. Her stare cuts right through your soul. It’s pretty alarming. She reminds me of Scarlett O’Hara when she determines she will never go hungry again. Also the image ‘Opel’, who is a fabulous woman called Rina. I had only just met her and she was so open and willing to be honest and direct with me. I think they work best as a collective though.
What was the biggest challenge for you in putting this exhibition together?
Treating the concept with care. Hoping that people wouldn’t be offended if they weren’t in the final show! Editing is a brutal process, but it was about communicating the concept, not ‘who looked the best’.
What’s your biggest 'flaw'?
I’m going to substitute that for insecurity! I actually photographed myself too, but didn’t make for a particularly interesting image. I’d say I think my eyes are too close together and I look perpetually angry. I am also prone to bad acne — good times. I photographed so many women, around 40. I had to edit it down to 14, which was difficult.
What exhibitions are you most looking forward to at this year’s Auckland Festival of Photography?
Definitely the group show (Annual Commission Recipients) at Pah on the same opening night next door, the group show at Corban Estate (Adam Custins, Joyce Campbell, etc.), Anne Noble at Two Rooms, and Kate van der Drift at Sanderson! There are quite a few interesting shows I’d love to see in the Fringe section, so much wonderful talent.