photographing imperfection for the digital generation

We used to fantasise about the inch perfect goddesses of the catwalks, but now we only have eyes for make-up free, gap-toothed real girls of the Tumblr aesthetic. i-D investigates how this happened...

by Jane Helpern
21 November 2014, 10:20am

Back in the 90s, it was not uncommon to spend the better part of your paycheck stocking up on high-gloss, high-brow fashion magazines at the newsstand. One of these treasured books bursting cover-to-cover with couture-clad, glamorously lit amazons could easily last you a month. You'd keep it in your purse to pour over whenever you found yourself with some down time at a chic coffeeshop, or to pull out when trying to avoid making eye contact on the rush hour train.

Later in your bedroom, you'd tear out your favorite pages and tack them to your pre-Pinterest corkboard. You probably had a favorite supermodel (Naomi Campbell, anyone?), and had come to terms with the fact that you'd never ever look like her (mom and dad were not gifted in the height department). So, how did we go from supermodel worshipping to a pastel hair, grown-out armpit stubble, and Tumblr-it-girl obsessed #selfie culture where Michael Bailey Gates and Petra Collins reign supreme as too-cool-for-school prom king and queen?

Anti-retouching naturalism is nothing new. One need only look at Corinne Day's iconic photos of Kate Moss and Juergen Teller's snapshot-style portraits to see the style at work even at the height of the early 90s supermodel era. Day and Teller are the cool grandparents of the natural, anti-retouching strain of photography that has taken hold on the Internet. Thanks to the invention of Instagram, Tumblr, Vine, and other rabbit-hole-friendly image and video sharing platforms that seamlessly make the transition between camera and iPhone, the once-elite industry is no longer as unattainable as it once was. The gap between reality and fashion fantasy is closing. We are now just a "like" away from our icons, and you don't need access to a fancy camera to create a picture, or a connection to a prestigious gallery to gain exposure.

For better or worse, or probably both (depending on who you ask), the Internet age has given birth to a generation of savvy and self-crowned photographers, publishers, curators, and models. These industry pioneers are disrupting, changing, and shaping the way we perceive and talk about beauty in 2014. And despite the widespread photo retouching that inevitably still dominates commercial shoots with massive budgets, many of these new photographers are committed to capturing and perpetuating the beauty of imperfection.

The Tumblr-generation muse is no longer a flawlessly airbrushed A-lister flashing her pearly whites on the cover of the September Issue while dripping in borrowed diamonds. Today's of-the-moment model has dark circles under her eyes, she's makeup-free, she's gap-toothed, gangly, and uninterested in being edited into submission. She's the notoriously fuzzy-legged, anti-razor, Arvida Byström. She's the cartoonishly big-lipped, furrow-browed i-D cover girl Lily McMenamy. He's androgynous, posing full-frontal nude, and covered in face tattoos. Some of them aren't even signed with agents… yet.

Toronto-based artist Petra Collins is perhaps at the forefront of the new-beauty movement. With her female-centric, body-affirming brand of photography, she's out to prove that real girls run the world, and that it's more than acceptable to let the natural female state be seen and celebrated. Although she certainly views things through cotton-candy-colored lenses (her Instagram is an explosion of vintage erotica, emoji hearts, and neon) her irreverent pictures of wiggly bellies, free nipples, and plentiful peach fuzz are reprogramming the fashion world's ideas of womanhood.

"The internet has opened up a space/outlet for people. And I think most importantly for young girls and women to create platforms, magazines, and websites that display images that are against the norm, images of real bodies," says Petra. "I'm inspired by all the imperfections. Stretch marks, the lines and curves, the hair, everything. I think they all enhance the landscape of the body." On whether she retouches her work, she shudders, "No! Never! That look is so bad." She feels fortunate that she's never worked with a photo editor who has overstepped her boundaries either.

25-year-old fellow Torontonian Maya Fuhr echoes Collins's appetite for the au naturale. "The Internet makes beauty and inspiration accessible. It's like an endless scroll of out-of-the norm beauty ideals with people of colour, sad girl culture, and different shapes and sizes. The white, all-American girl smiling is no longer the standard for beauty that the mags once stood for," says Maya.

In Reely and Truly, a 30-minute short film by Londoner and i-D photographer Tyrone Lebon, we get to peer into the self-reflective underworld of fashion's most sought after lens-masters, from Teller to Collins, and everyone in between. In Lebon's insightful film, Japanese artist Fumiko Imano, known for her alter-ego-rific Twins series, strips down and squeals playfully as she discusses her perception of body. "Whenever I see pumpkin, I take off my clothes. Because I feel like my body is a little bit like a pumpkin." Imano is referring to a series of Polaroids in which she poses nude, on all fours, with her fleshy, cherubic rolls proudly on display, blissfully surrounded by the festive, autumnal food. Fumiko's colorful photos, many of which are revealing self-portraits, often feature the artist stripped down with her face and body obscured or adorned with lush nature and ripe fruits. She is unabashedly herself in full bloom.

Also featured in the film is Ari Marcopoulos, the former assistant to Andy Warhol. His brazen black-and-whites of New York counter-culture, punk rock youth, and bad boy skateboarders have earned him the title of the industry's most recognizable artists. His work is synonymous with the city's creative geniuses and oft-tormented, hard-partying inner circle, and his subjects tend to be anything but by-the-book beautiful. Which is likely why we are so intrigued by them. They have an irresistible dark side. Where many may see imperfection, Marcopolous sees beauty and immortalizes it.

So why is a new generation more inspired by these low-maintenance, uncensored, slightly grotesque images than the hyper-enhanced, unrealistic pictures that have been sold on billboards and magazines for years? "Perfect people seem strangely boring," as Maya Fuhr puts it bluntly. It's far more interesting to see what real bodies and faces are made of, bruises and sunspots and indents and all, rather than pictures that have been warped to become unrecognizable and isolating shells of what they once were. Instead of shunning and shaming flaws, this type of photography is about embracing and paying tribute to the quirks and asymmetries that comprise even the most surreally beautiful of human beings. It's not about being unattractive or attractive; it's about being unique, and being yourself. Like beauty, imperfection is in the eye of the beholder. While some may see a curved spine, black eye, or crooked nose, this crop of photographers see a decisive moment in time, ready to be captured.


Text Jane Helpern
Photography Corinne Day
[The Original Issue, no. 201, septiembre del 2000]

Petra Collins
Arvida Byström
Nueva York
Juergen Teller
Tyrone Lebon
Michael Bailey Gates
Jane Helpern
tumblr aesthetic
corinne day
lily mcmenamy
maya furh