For the past decade I have been working exclusively on these #harshbeautiful portraits and after almost 300 photoshoots there are now over 250 faces in the official collection. For me every image feels like an intimate painting because it takes so many hours of fine post-production editing to complete each one.
This is a deeply personal project through which I test out notions of sexuality, gender, vulnerability, desirability, ageing, and physical imperfection. I explore these themes because so much in popular culture speaks with such extraordinary urgency about the need for us to take charge of our bodies and minds, to have a makeover and to “become the person that you were always meant to be!”
This painfully simplistic account of the human mind gives the impression that we can erase the pain of our earlier life, give birth to a new more contented personality, and take charge of our destiny, simply through the power of positive self-belief, and some bloody good cosmetic work on our physical appearance! If we could just flick a switch to become achingly beautiful, then we will also be effortlessly and unbearably desirable, and our whole lives will be transformed from ordinary to unique. “I moisturise therefore I am!”
Popular culture encourages us to scrutinise our inner psyches and our outer appearances with the same critical gaze. Any psychological vulnerabilities that we may experience, or any apparent imperfections to our appearance, are treated as one and the same thing. They are simplistically blamed on a failure of willpower or on a lazy cosmetic regimen – shameful personal defects that signal that we deserve whatever cruel punishments that life may throw at us.
And of course much of social media plays right into this fantasy, coaching us to keep pouting and clicking away until we knock out that perfect selfie, and post it alongside a life affirming status update. (“Nourishing myself is a joyful experience, and I am worth the time spent on my healing.”) With so many sophisticated digital filters at our disposal it’s too easy to apply a quick nip-tuck and airbrush a glowing air of youthfulness to our virtual faces, even if our material bodies and individual psyches are desperately in need of a more robust MOT.
On the face of it then, these gritty, hyper-real #harshbeautiful portraits appear to fly in the face of airbrushing trickery and self-loathing. They scrutinize each sitter with an unflinching gaze, who in return reveals the scars of their life unashamedly etched across their features in forensic detail. Surely this represents the ultimate #nofilter #selfactualising moment in which each sitter courageously bears their authentic soul for the camera?!
Yet the portraits in this series are also painstakingly contrived. The shots are meticulously posed, and have been subject to their own mode of “cosmetic surgery” by being heavily worked on in post-production for days on end. With their off-kilter colour palette and otherworldly chiaroscuro, the characters represented in these portraits are as far removed from their original selves as action movie characters adrift in a chroma key galaxy!
On first glance these portraits seem to deploy the refined sensibilities of formal portrait painting – they accentuate the fine features of each sitter and suggest a connoisseurial entitlement to the trappings of wealth, rank and privilege. Yet on further examination these #harshbeautiful portraits also revel in the sitters’ open pores and dishevelled whiskers, and celebrate their imperfections with a gleefulness that is usually reserved for the earthy down-market characters who populate historic genre paintings.
Ultimately then, the expression of each bare-shouldered sitter appears to resonate with uncertainty, doubt, restlessness, world-weariness and immanence. Each image seems to portray a tender intimacy – a resilience, ruggedness, and a new-found robustness that comes from surviving life’s crises.