Alan McCredie: Beauty

Image of Dorothea Lange's
Image of a nude woman by Edward Weston accompanying guest article
Image of woman to accompany guest article

Photographer and male feminist, Alan McCredie talks about his experience of the artificial creation of traditional beauty campaigns.

“No – spray more of the glycerine! On her cleavage – spray more of it!”

I’d only been out of Photography college a few weeks and was at the start of my first job as a photographer’s assistant. Here I was, with dreams of being the next Capa, or Brandt, or Liebowitz, pumping a glycerine and water solution over the cleavage of a model, dressed as Lara Croft, for what can only really be described as a vanity project for the client. This was my first, and defining, experience of the world of beauty and photography. I didn’t like it, and every squirt of glycerine only made things worse.

Photography and female beauty have always had a symbiotic relationship. From almost the earliest days of photography the examination of female beauty has been a constant. As (male) perceptions of female beauty have changed photography has been there to record the changes. Edward Weston’s nudes are some of my favourite work, and still, years after I first saw it, I am still in awe of Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother (to the left) which is as far as I’m concerned not only one of the finest examples of female beauty, it is one of the finest examples of any kind of beauty. The power, humanity and feeling in the photograph is almost unrivalled. Both Weston and Lange have photographed female beauty in starkly different ways, yet both are perfect examples of it.

One needs only to watch any advert break, or pick up a glossy magazine to see the power of female beauty in the quest for advertising revenue. Female beauty is, in the hands of the advertisers and the photographers/filmmakers they employ nothing more than a commodity: a way to sell an idea, and ideal and product. It has always been like this and for all I know always will be. Female beauty has been used as a cultural touchstone since the dawn of history and this, whatever we may think, is unlikely to change soon. As a photographer, it is almost impossible to avoid this. If beauty is always going to be packaged and sold then the best way to subvert this is to change what beauty means, and what beauty is.

Beauty in advertising and photography goes almost always hand in hand with affluence. There is nothing wrong with either, although to promote them as ‘the answer’ doesn’t seem right to me. There are many paths through life and the majority of us will never be “model beautiful” or so well-off that money is not an issue. I understand why it happens, I’m just not sure it should.

What I cannot deal with, and what makes me really troubled is the manipulation of the female image in print. I understand the power of aspirational advertising, but to make that image physically unattainable is both reckless and dangerous. It also implies that simply being naturally ‘beautiful’ (whatever that means) is no longer enough, and that physical alteration is to be applauded. Don’t get me wrong, if people wish to physically alter themselves that is rightly their choice, but they should not be forced to do it in the quest for some impossible ideal, foisted upon them in the quest to make them buy more shampoo.

As a photographer I quickly lost interest in the world of advertising photography, which is unfortunate as that is where most of the money is. There are photographers with far more talent than me who do some wonderful work in this area and I wouldn’t dream of belittling them. That world is not for me. Personally I don’t find it rewarding although I understand why some do. There is scope for much creativity, but ultimately it just leaves me cold.

I now deal mostly with documentary and editorial work and my main aim now is to try and uncover truths, or at least some manifestation of truths. Once, deep in the middle of a long form photostory I was carrying out, I took a wrong turn in the car. There was a woman, battering the living daylights out of a car bumper outside her metal polishing workshop. I stopped and she kindly let me take her photo (pictured to the left). For me, there is more beauty in that photo than all my glossy advertising shots put together. And not one single squirt of glycerine solution was needed.

 

Check out Alan’s new book, Scotland the Dreich.