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A Closer Look -- A New Kind of Beauty

A New Kind of Beauty
I've been familiar with Philip Toledano's A New Kind of Beauty series for several years, but having only seen the images online, the new elegantly produced book from Dewi Lewis made me feel like I was seeing it for the first time. The book is large at 14-3/4x11-1/2 inches, and while not outlandishly big, the scale creates a notable presence. Gazing out from the cover is a cropped version of Toledano's portrait of Allanah, the woman who inspired the project. Her face is striking, strangely distorted and mask-like, a series of beautiful features that in combination seem unsettlingly off. She is a vision of surgical enhancement. Her expressionless face seems oddly inert, yet her eyes draw you in; they are a sympathetic anchor, piquing curiosity. The book opens with a statement from Toledano printed white on gold paper. It reads like both a thesis and a challenge, stating, "I believe we are at the vanguard of a period of human-induced evolution. A turning point in history where we are beginning to define not only our own concept of beauty, but of physicality itself."

The memorable images that follow have made the rounds on the internet and have been called disturbing. Yet while his subjects have made choices that have created an abnormal appearance, Toledano has not sensationalized them; his staid approach focuses on the physicality of his sitters, shooting them in classical poses and chiaroscuro style. They are shown nude or partially clothed, draped in cloth with simple hairstyles and unornamented. Images alternately resemble the compositions of classical painting and sculpture, and each subject exudes a captivating bodily presence. Magnificently lit and printed, the large images in the book reveal the impressive detail capture by the photographer, detail I've never fully been aware of in looking at the work online and that I imagine is even more striking in the 40"x30" prints. Pores, veins and fine lines all become visible, and the varied texture of the skin becomes a complex element of some of these images.  To me, these are the most beautiful. In people who have strayed so far from their natural human forms, it is here that I find the tenderest human element.

from A New Kind of Beauty
from A New Kind of Beauty
Not all of the cosmetic surgery depicted in the book is extreme, though many will only see the most transgressive examples; there is an urge to gawk and pass judgment on people who look unusual by design. I'm sure some will find the book lurid, but Toledano has accomplished something impressive, subverting the human desire to stare at and mock what is different by giving us the license to do so and structuring the images as we typically view classical works of art. Presented on this scale, the book and its sitters are subtly confrontational. They dare you to look and ponder, view them in the unique context of the lens of art. One could describe these people with their amplified features as grotesques, preposterous exaggerations of the human form that can elicit disgust in their incongruous nature. Yet how different are they from the over-built bodies in Michelangelo's frescos on ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, or the exceptionally large hands of his David? These are grotesques as well, humans so idealized as to be absurdist in their proportions. But Toledano's sitters have rendered these proportions in the flesh.

from A New Kind of Beauty
from A New Kind of Beauty
The essay by WM Hunt that completes the book sets the perfect concluding tone, at once engaging the elements of discomfort and wonder in the images while discussing the historical and cultural implications of the work and Toledano's set up. Calling the augmented cheek bones, lips and breast hyperbolic, Hunt points out that these portraits illustrate a beauty that is in the eye of the beheld, not the beholder. It is a book full of questions that linger far beyond the scope of its pages, but I find it impossible not to agree with Hunt's conclusion -- this is indeed a new kind of beauty. -- Sarah Bradley

Purchase a copy here