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Girls on Film


Photography has had a profound influence on what we perceive as beautiful. Stylist explores how the history of the camera has shaped ideas of women and beauty.

There we were on a Friday night, hair coiffed, make-up done, feeling like the prettiest version of ourselves… and then something changed. Someone produced a camera and instructed us to ‘get in’ shot. Stiffened with dread, we obeyed, each aware that an unflattering photograph can be the lasting legacy of what was, in reality, a bloody good night. None of us looked naturally happy despite the fact we had been just seconds before.

I first noticed the relationship between beauty and cameras at the age of 18. My first cameraphone featured a black and white capability. Allowing us to see ourselves in a slightly pretentious but flattering light meant that as a group of squawking teenagers we insisted all photos must be black and white. Since then, we’ve become a nation obsessed with our own photographic image. From whispers about those who Photoshop their holiday photos to the rise of photo sharing in social media – everyone is now Instagraming everyone else, all the time. Technology has poignantly given us the freedom to create the exact image of ourselves we choose, but it’s also made us beauty consumers hell-bent on perfection.

All of this shouldn't come as a surprise. Photographers have always influenced our notions of beauty; what appeals to us and what we aspire to. Their images flatter and challenge us, forming a canon which defines every beauty era. Here, Stylist explores the way in which four eras of photography have influenced British beauty.

1920s: Sepia

Characterised by a taupe-tinged warmth, sepia photography was not merely a confinement of the technology available, more a deliberate manipulation of the Victorian black and white photography that came before it. The subjects of the sepia age were those found in Twenties films – Clara Bow with her doe eyes and kiss curls, Gloria Swanson with her wistful gaze and pencil thin brows and Louise Brooks, who spearheaded the bob.

“The warmth that sepia portrays is softer to the eye because the reddish tones are closer to real flesh colour than black and white and are therefore deemed attractive,” says photographer Jerry Lebens. The warm tone, coupled with soft focus edges – due to the unsophisticated lenses of the time – helped to romanticise the women. The beauty world followed suit, with an emphasis on soft-focus pinched cheeks, kiss curls and doe eyes – wistful and graceful. “Sepia offered the viewer a very positive view of herself,” says Fiona Minors, director of fashion image at London College of Fashion.

Photographers even took to toning by hand to rouge the cheeks of their subject, proving retouching existed long before the digital age.

1930s: Black and White

There is something about black and white photography that etches itself onto the memory forever. The explosion of motion pictures in Hollywood – in particular, the film noir movement of the Thirties – saw photographers returning to black and white from sepia for a grittier look. “There was also great progress in photographic lights,” says photographer and filmmaker, Stuart Acker Holt. The arrival of cheaper incandescent lights, for instance, let filmmakers easily experiment with different lighting effects.

These lights shed themselves on the icons of the time including Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, lending them an air of unapproachable beauty, an innate strength hitherto unseen in female portraiture. Smiles were replaced with pouts and cut-glass cheekbones, enhanced by the shadows created by the strong lighting, the angles of which were geometrically measured by photographers’ assistants to ensure optimum visual beauty.

“Photographers started to consider the contours of the face, and models became more angular, with an almost boyish handsomeness,” says Lebens. For the women of the time, this gave way to a sterner approach to make-up, contouring the cheekbones and the emergence of a thicker, more masculine brow. “At its root, black and white photography represents the binary notion of good and bad, light and shadow and even heaven and hell,” adds Holt. Which explains why it still resonates as a photographic style today.

1950s: Colour

The emergence of colour beauty photography in the late Fifties was the equivalent of turning on a light. Colour gave models a more detailed distinction – they could be identified by the subtle tone of their skin and their hair colour. In the wake of this, hair colour became a powerful mode of self-expression, prompting a boom in at-home hair colourants.

“When photographers first started shooting in colour, they noticed it showed huge amounts of make-up,” says Holt, leading to a boom in the colour cosmetics market. Exoticism, sexuality and power became the new beauty principle and make-up took prime place in photographs as the subtleties of colour could finally be expressed. “Where black and white has a documentary feel to it, colour represents opulence,” says Holt.

“There was flamboyancy in the work of photographer Helmut Newton, who created colours that didn’t really exist in the real world,” says Minors. “His work sold seduction and the contrast of colour was a key feature in selling the fantasy of beauty.”

2000s: Digital

Above: David LaChappelle's portrait of Uma Thurman.

Today’s photography landscape, with its pixel-perfect detail, has fractured the notion of beauty into a million pieces. From the mannequin-like hyperreal fantasies of surrealist photographer David LaChapelle, where superficiality is adored, to the brutal realism of photographer Juergen Teller and the authenticity of Mario Testino’s portraits, every detail is now visible in high focus. “Digital photography is improving all the time,” says Holt. “A decade ago, we’d have been using three megapixels, now we use 10.”

“At present, we are ‘knowing’ viewers, we are now more informed about photographic manipulation,” says Minors. The knock-on effect is that we’ve become fascinated by the finer details – the perfect brow shape, a subtly luminous glow to the complexion, even the careful elimination of sun spots and pores. We celebrate natural beauties, but the underlying ideal is of almost artificial perfection – something only really achieved through the lens of a camera.

That is, until now. Photographic perfection might finally be within our grasp. Formulated in Japan, Fujifilm’s latest project Astalift is a new line of skincare based on more than 70 years of research. Not only is collagen the essential ingredient in camera film (Fujifilm has used it since 1934), it is also a vital component of healthy, firm skin. The Astalift formula contains soluble, permeable and picocollagen which, when combined, encourage natural collagen production. It’s the number one skincare brand in Japan and it’s just arrived here, promising the dream: photographically perfect skin.

Like modern-day photographers, we’re ever-more aware of how technology can assist in our individual beauty quests. And with the proliferation of smartphones and social media, we’re capturing the beauty we find in ourselves and others more than ever before.

“Now you can take a mediocre shot and adjust it.” says Holt. “It’s given us more freedom.” Whether the technological revolution has benefitted the world of beauty and the women who inhabit it, though, is – like beauty itself – subjective.

Words: Joanna McGarry

Picture credits: Getty Images and Rex Features



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