Beauty and Glamour: Skin Deep Photography?

Spend some time at a news stand or the magazine section of a bookstore, and it is impossible to avoid the glossy fashion, celeb, or women’s magazines and the highly manipulated, mannequin-looking women on their covers. This is the world of glamour photography–the world of the proverbial “perfect” beauty and body. There is also the wilder version of glamour photography, which includes photographs that appear in some
soft-core men’s magazines. Anything beyond that, i.e. the hardcore stuff, are
obviously not in the style of glamour and therefore not the subject of this
blog. Now, there is no-doubt a market for this type of work, but what about
artistic qualities of the genre?

Before going too deep into the topic, I should
mention that I have done some glamour-type work in the past. About 10 years
ago, I befriended a group of photographers in my area. The main goal of this
informal group was to share knowledge and practice beauty and glamour
photography. It certainly was exciting. We held get togethers, and model
shoots. This was also around the golden age of internet modeling sites, which
meant models were not in short supply. It was a lot of fun! After all, what guy
would not want to photograph attractive women in various stages of undress? But
alas, the creative part of my brain started to question things. The general
mood of the group was really “taking pictures of pretty girls” than
anything–perhaps not a completely unexpected attitude from a bunch of guys.
And then there was the very conventional idea of “beauty” that I
started to have problems with, which I thought was just too shallow. But it
wasn’t all for nothing though. This is when I learned and practiced the use of artificial
lights in portraiture. Some of the photographs I took during that era are still
among my favorites today, including the one at the top of this post.

So…let us move on to the question at hand. Is
glamour photography art? Perhaps a better question would be, can glamour photography be art? Most of what we see in those glossy magazines does not appear to have a whole lot of artistic quality. But then there are a few exceptions—a few photographers whose work, although do appear in some of those same magazines, are in fact oceans away from the rest. Take Annie Leibovitz as an example. She has an uncanny ability to turn whatever
she photographs into a work of art. Often her subjects are celebrities, but the
photographs that she creates are certainly no ordinary glamour shots. I also
thoroughly enjoy, although they are certainly not my style of photographs, the
juxtaposition of alternate realities created by David LaChapelle. Now here is
somebody who frequently photographs celebrities, but looking at his work one
has to think that a celebrity portrait has been the furthest thing from his mind.
LaChapelle treats his frame like a canvas on which he meticulously arranges his
subjects. The celebrity is often just one of those subjects, almost reduced to
a prop used to achieve his artistic vision. And of course there are others
whose work I have enjoyed over the years.

So it appears that glamour photography does not necessarily
have to mean overly photoshopped images that frequently go into the realm of
absurdity when it comes to the subject’s look and body type. However, that certainly
seems to be the norm. Having established that, what would be my advice to
someone contemplating a foray into the world of glamour? Well, the first advice
would be about the same for any type of photography. Make sure you are very
well-versed in the basics. Being able to take a good photograph in any kind of
situation is absolutely essential for a photographer. Also, while you are at
it, make sure you understand light very well, particularly artificial light.
There is probably no other genre where artificial light is more important.

Find a good model. It is absolutely fine if your
first model is your significant other, but it should be someone who is
compassionate and helpful to your quest to becoming a better photographer. Once
you start taking some photographs, work hard to create your own style. Be a
rebel, don’t conform to the norm. Your goal should not be the ability to create
perfectly lit photographs of people with unrealistically smooth skin and a
perfect body, rather it should be the ability to create photographs that others
will look at and say “I know who took this”. Go easy on post-processing, unless
it’s a part of your style. Don’t be conventional in your choice of subjects,
you don’t have to stick to the conventional definition of beauty. And of
course, glamour photography is not just about female subjects, male models can
be just as good.

There certainly are commercial rewards associated
with success in this area. Advertising is obviously a big one. But be advised,
like most things in life, only a few will ever get to that point and reap those
rewards. But I certainly won’t discourage anyone from trying.

Posted in Art Talk | Tagged | 1 Comment

Photography Themed Films: High Art

If photography is my love, then the art of filmmaking would be my secret affair. I have confessed to only a few of my friends of this indiscretion. The truth is, my teenage dream was to study film and eventually become a director. But as I quickly figured out, and if any of you grew up anywhere in Asia would understand, that is a complete non-starter
in that part of the world. But my love of the talkies remained alive and well
and has flourished as a consumer, rather than on the other side of the
transaction. Only rarely do I get to combine my love of film with that of
photography. “High Art” is such an opportunity.

The first time I watched “High Art” was a number of years ago on a premium movie channel. I have seen it a couple more times since then. The storyline is rather simple–Syd (Radha Mitchell) is an assistant editor of a New York based photo magazine. She lives with her boyfriend in their New York apartment. One day, to investigate a water leak Syd
finds herself knocking at the door to the apartment directly above them. This
rather routine action ends up opening a whole new, exciting, and somewhat dangerous
world to Syd.  The primary inhabitants of the apartment upstairs are two free-spirited, bohemian souls–Lucy Berliner (Alley Sheedy) who used to be a rather famous photographer a decade earlier, and her German ex-actress partner Greta played by Patricia Clarkson.  And then there are the temporary inhabitants–an interesting herd of young men and women who are really there for the drugs and the parties.

Syd is invited into the apartment, and like any good photo editor, she quickly notices Lucy’s photographs displayed throughout the apartment. She really likes them and ends up pitching the idea of having some of Lucy’s photographs published in the magazine. The people at the magazine, eventually realizing that Syd’s neighbor is the infamous Lucy Berliner, who has not published or shown anything in ten years, offered to give her the cover. Syd and Lucy begin to collaborate on the project. The two women become close
which takes them on a journey that is fun, heartbreaking, and unpredictable.

“High Art” was written and directed by Lisa Cholodenko. This was her first feature-length film and I suppose it did show at times. But as a director Cholodenko’s attention to detail is unbelievable. The set design was excellent. The people, the events, and the
comings and goings at Lucy and Greta’s apartment were undoubtedly some of the
highlights of this film. Both Mitchell and Sheedy delivered knockout
performances. The chemistry between them was great, which made their
interactions entirely believable. Clarkson as Greta also delivered a great
performance. Her slight over-acting in depicting the ex-actress was both
amusing and appeared completely natural for the character. The film was
perfectly lit and beautifully shot.

If there was one thing in the film that needed a bit more work, it was probably the script. While overall the script was pretty good and had some witty moments, it also contained some scenes that were just too flat and slow. There isn’t a single strong male character in the film. Every male seemed more like an afterthought than a well developed character.

Overall, “High Art” is a great film. It is not for everyone though. The film is rated
“R” for sexuality and drug use. The DVD transfer was actually very
good, considering it was released a number of years ago. HD version of the film
is not available. I did watch it on a large HD TV and the resolution held out
very well. Viewers that enjoy good character studies albeit at a mellow pace
will enjoy “High Art”. Those that are into loud, mindless
entertainment should move on.

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Urban Ruins

The  School of Forest Resources on campus, where I work, is getting a new building. A new wing is being constructed adjacent to the old building. The current building is also
being completely redone. A few days ago, on my way to work, I walked through a
part of the old building. It was quite a sight. everything was ripped apart.
The rooms looked sad and tired. It felt as if the building was ashamed, naked,
and vulnerable. I knew I had to come back with my camera, which I did that very
afternoon and took a few photographs.

Here are a few of those photographs. This may be a
post that should be more about the photos and less about the words.

Posted in The World Observed | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Do I have to be rich to be a collector?

When I tell people that I am an occasional art
collector, the usual response that I get is something like “I’m just not wealthy
enough to do that.” I find this response curious and amusing at the same time.
The underlying assumption, of course, is that the only kind of art collection
involves buying pieces by big name artists for a ton of money and holding on to
them as they exponentially appreciate in value. While I am flattered that
anyone believes I have that ability, this rather romantic and largely
unrealistic perception has caused many potential art buyers to shy away. For
me, collecting artwork has nothing to do with value, and everything to do with
appreciating art, owning pieces that I feel I would enjoy a lifetime, and
supporting fellow artists within my limited abilities. I would encourage all
art aficionados to consider starting a collection. It is incredibly fun and
rewarding, not to mention good karma because you would probably be supporting
some starving artists! Here are some of my thoughts on how to get started.

Narrow your preference. What type of art would you
like to own? Being specific will help you find work that you might like and
save you from getting lost in the highly diverse world of art. I collect
photographs only. I also have certain preferences that help me find the pieces
that I would like to own. More often than not, I tend to prefer female
photographers, sometimes from the developing world. I also tend to be partial
to artworks that are on the sensual and erotic side. Now, I don’t always stick
to these rules, but I seem to naturally gravitate toward these types of work.

Start small. If you are just starting to collect,
set a maximum dollar amount that you’d want to spend on each piece. It also
helps to start with a relatively small amount, say, $50. It seems to me that
$50 is an amount that many of us can afford to spend every now and then on a
work of art. Think that’s too low? You would be surprised! Look at the local
galleries, art fairs, and a host of different sites online, including Ebay,
where one can purchase great but affordable art. In fact, a web search for “20×200”
would take one to the now famous site created by Jen Bekman with the explicit
goal of making art affordable.

Learn the basics. As you start to collect, do some
research and learn the basics on how to pick quality art and how to take care
of them. If collecting photographs is your thing, then learn the differences
among different types of prints. Pay particular attention to their archival
life. Learning the basics of handling and storage would help your favorite
artwork last a long time.

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Flirting with Bangkok

I have recently returned from a month-long trip to South Asia. The main purpose of the trip was to visit family in Bangladesh, but while there, I had planned to take a few short trips and do a lot of photography. I had my gear and a LOT of storage. But life intervened, and because of two illnesses in the family, those plans had to be cancelled.

I did, however, plan a two-day transit in Bangkok on my way back to the U.S. This was my second visit in 3 years. I know the mere mention of Bangkok gets the usual “naughty naughty” response from most people, but I actually happen to like the place and not for the usual reason either. Although Bangkok as a premier destination for fulfilling desires of the flesh is certainly not overstated, and if so inclined, a visitor can find plenty of opportunities to do so. If that is your intention, go right ahead, just know that by doing so you are probably contributing to the abuse and trafficking of women. My affinity for Bangkok is for completely different reasons. While many visitors may find it difficult to like the city–it is huge, chaotic, the traffic is crazy, and many of the locals don’t speak a lot of English; but for a photographer things may seem much different.

Sure the traffic is bad, but Bangkok has an excellent train system (actually, two of them–the BTS and the MRT) that makes moving around the city quite convenient. It is a fairly walkable city, unless you are bothered by the heat. My advice, don’t be. You will start sweating within minutes of being outside, just accept it and move on. There are numerous temples, palaces, markets, rivers and canals, and parks that offer great photo opportunities. And then there are the people. Bangkok’s biggest assets are its people. For a city this size, they have to be among the friendliest in the region, probably the world. It’s also a great place for people watching–the hip teenagers, the Bangkok elites, the ordinary hard working people, the expats, the sexpats, the monks, and the tourists–an interesting combination indeed!

If one looks a little deeper than what’s on the surface, the social dynamics start to become more evident. On one hand there is the glitz and glamour of the haves, and then there is the continual struggle of the have-nots. One also realizes the sweat and sacrifice that goes into the day to day operation of the city and satisfaction of the ever so important tourists. As a photographer, that is where I want to be. I want to do some documentary-style work on the hard working people of Bangkok, but I still don’t feel ready for that. I feel that I need to understand the culture better before embarking on such a project.

Meanwhile, on this trip, I walked around, made some friends, took some photographs. I hung out in this expat English pub called Chequers ( on Sukhumvit Soi 4. They claim to have the best fish and chips in Bangkok, and they are not kidding.

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The Launch!

Whew! Finally I get around to creating a blog. I know that this is very very late in the game, seems like everybody has a blog these days. And there are literally thousands of photography blogs. So why add one more to the pile?

What do I expect to do with this blog? Well, first things first, this is NOT going to be a blog filled with “pretty pictures”. This will be more about words…my thoughts on different aspects of photography, some critique, book reviews…that sort of stuff. This is not likely to be terribly prolific either. I only intend to post if I have something to say.

With that, let the fun begin!

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments