first ever blog post: on beauty

I’ve been telling myself for nearly a year to start a blog, or – as I’m sometimes going to call it from now on – a blob, due to the proximity of g and b on a qwerty keyboard and a mistake made by me in the last 10 seconds.

Unfortunately I never do things when I realise I ought to, but only when the feeling takes me. It felt fitting to start the journal today partly because it’s the beginning of the academic year – and beginnings are often a good place to begin – and also because my work as a photographer seems to be steering itself in a slightly new direction. This always takes the form of me getting frustrated because my categories are no longer appropriate. I’ve become used to categorizing my work into ‘Fashionart’ and ‘Lifeart’, which I had defined on my website like this:

Fashionart?

“This half of my work is about fashion, or more generally style, and to this end I’ve adopted the term ‘fashionart’ from arty magazines, because I like it. Style is a vague word, but by way of a working definition I guess it’s something like the way a person presents themselves with the aid of a cultural context and material things. Fashion is the more time-dependent version of this. Not that any art isn’t time or culture dependent, but ‘fashionart’ is very much so, in contrast to what I would put in my other category, Lifeart.”

Lifeart…?

“These galleries contain my work that isn’t Fashionart. Things to do with life: bodies, persons and experiences. Studies in human form, portraiture, and real or realistic pictures that capture memories and moods.”

Now I’m not sure whether these are mutually exclusive. More recent work has made my categories seep into each other. So, on my Model Mayhem account, I’ve said, more loosely, that my work is about the body, personality, stories, moods and most of all style…which I guess is more generally charisma, and more restrictedly the presentations of fashion. But maybe this isn’t sufficient. Having thought about it again more recently, style isn’t enough of a motivator by itself for me to make pictures. I’d forgotten the overriding thing, which is that I make pictures in the pursuit of beauty. Maybe I took it for granted this is what art is about.

I realised this when I watched a very interesting youtube video by Scott Burdick called ‘The Banishment of Beauty’, which I was directed to by a fellow redbubble member in response to one of my recent images. It explores the question of what makes the modern art movement differ so starkly from the traditions before it, and it isolates beauty as the determining factor. He claims that modern art critics reject beautiful artwork as superficial and instead regard only ugly, shocking work as important.

Usually I don’t relate to commentaries that make strong value judgements, but this presentation is very well considered and, as far as possible, analytic. I was intrigued by the observation that modern artworks aren’t standalone visual pieces; they have to have a (usually subversive) theory or message or methodological innovation behind them, and in a way the visual piece is secondary. This guy also talked about an undercurrent movement of relatively unknown artists and especially online art communities (I think redbubble is a great example) who still pursue beauty as the primary purpose of art.

My work is definitely about beauty, and not much else. And even insofar as any of my work does have a message, the picture has to be beautiful too. If something is neutral or ugly, and conveys a message, I call it a ‘diagram’ and these should be used to illustrate an essay – which is basically Scott Burdick’s observation above. Anyway, my most recent series is exclusively concerned with the portrayal of beauty, but I guess it also has a message, because it tells a story about beauty.

Sometimes I see something so beautiful and with such a fragile, delicate transience, so poignantly precarious, that I just don’t know what to do about it. Taking photos is one small way of alleviating that bittersweet pain. For the last few years I’ve been watching my younger sisters grow from childhood into womanhood, and I’m captivated by the change. It’s often given me that helpless artist’s feeling of ‘I need to do something about this beauty, because tomorrow it will be different, and again the day after that…’.

‘Where you cannot follow’

My sisters have been my regular muses in natural and ambient light since I started photography, but my sister Deborah’s recent beauty called for more drastic action, so I took her to a studio. This, by the way, is an excellent studio owned by Ian (Maxoperandi) who, by the way, recently shot me and Ivory Flame together (read about it on Holly’s blog here). I wanted to capture Debby’s delicate and unconscious bodily grace and a certain expression in her face of forgivingness, calm, and an undercurrent of incipient wakefulness.
‘Like a deer staring at the first winter snow’


There’s something about that sort of ‘nymphet’ beauty which can easily draw you into thinking that it is the beautiful stage in a human’s life: that after the age of 15, a girl is ‘trapped in her own corpse’, which is what Humbert Humbert thinks in Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’. I’m not quite that pessimistic, but I do appreciate that sense of loss. The shoot put me in mind of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ ‘The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo’, and I’ve named some of the pieces after lines from that poem – only I’m an atheist so I have to derive my comfort from the creation of art, rather than entrusting beauty to God.
‘And with sighs soaring, soaring síghs deliver them’
The drawback, though, is that most of my work in this genre is unpublishable, due to it containing child and pubescent nudity. I hugely admire the work and ethos of photographers like Sally Mann and Jock Sturges whom I envy for getting in there just before it became completely out of the question to publish that kind of work (it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission).

Interestingly, this situation itself is an echo (a ‘leaden echo’, if you like) of the transience of this kind of beauty. You can’t keep it from vanishing away, and neither can you show it off while it happens. It’s not for anyone. Wild flowers grow and bloom and die, and have been doing so for millions of years before us, all without witness. Because of the technology we have it’s easy to think that the only way to affirm the beauty we notice is to record it and circulate it widely. But it can be liberating to realise that recording, and even just noticing the beauty in the first place is an end in itself, and something which I reckon Nietzsche would call life-affirming and in keeping with his claim that ‘art is the proper task of life’.
Keep it, beauty, beauty…from vanishing away’
Maybe, in 10 years time when my nude adolescent pictures comprise a large, diachronic collection, I’ll find a publisher mad enough to put them together in a coffee-table book. But for now, the pictures will have to be treasures for my family. If they do ever reach the public, people will probably say they contain a message like ‘child and adolescent nudity should be kosher, and isn’t it such a shame that we’re so afraid of its misuse that it has to actually be banned’. But I didn’t have such a message in mind when I made the pictures. I don’t know what my position on this tricky issue is, because I haven’t thought it through enough yet. I take pictures of my beautiful sisters in order to try and do justice the beauty I see, and if I do wish that I could distribute the images it’s purely down to the urge to share beautiful findings. I hope I’ve been able to share some of that beauty with these portraits.

About Rebecca Tun

According to me, I like lists. View all posts by Rebecca Tun

6 responses to “first ever blog post: on beauty

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