Five essential elements, collected from beauty experts
Hair issues, permanent scars, weight fluctuations and skin conditions can make for an unstable relationship with the word “beauty” no matter who you are – and most survivors of breast cancer know this even more acutely. The word “beauty” is one of language’s most positive, describing a most desirable quality; and yet, it can also cause negative feelings in an instant.
But what is beauty made of? How can it possibly be defined? Is it different for everyone, or is there some common element that all humans recognize and embrace as a starting point? We thought we should take it to the experts: Professionals who capture or produce beauty on a daily basis can perhaps help us to understand it more clearly and thus make our peace with it.
The eyes of photographers
Billy Howard is an award-winning photographer who has traveled the world to share stories of human existence through his lens. “I have spent my career trying to capture beauty,” he says. Early on, he thought of being a fashion photographer, but decided its scope was too limiting. “I prefer mixing it up with people who don’t come ‘pre-packaged’ in our current culture’s defined look,” he explains. “It is much more interesting to find that beauty in each person I meet.” Howard’s photos have included young and old, AIDS and cancer patients, schoolchildren, athletes and other portraiture.
When asked to name some elementary ingredients for a beautiful photograph, Howard provides a common answer: Lighting. “Look at Rembrandt paintings and you’ll notice the light is usually coming from a direction away from the painter, to the side of the subject. If it’s good enough for him, it works for me! I often light from the opposite side of the face that I am shooting, letting the light softly sculpt the contours of the face.
“Have you ever looked closely at before and after photos? The ‘before’ shot is almost always shot with flat, straight-on lighting which creates a flat image, emphasizing any flaws and leaving a more two-dimensional feeling to the face. The ‘after’ photograph is typically lit slightly from one side, allowing soft shadows along the face, bringing it more into three dimensions and creating a softer look. Voila, without doing anything, the person looks better.”
More than skin deep
But obviously, there is more to a beautiful image than just the angle of the sun. “My goal has always been to create an image that my subject looks at and says, ‘That’s me.’ I want to capture not just how they look, but their sense of themselves – I want to take a photograph that honors their dignity.” Many times, photography subjects aren’t famous or models, so sitting in front of a camera with lights popping and assistants moving around can be intimidating and lead to unnatural looks, fake smiles and artificial expressions. The goal for Howard is to get past that. “Most of [my technique] has nothing to do with photography; it has to do with building relationships. That is my favorite part of the job and I have built decades-long friendships with people that started out as a subject in front of my camera,” Howard concludes.
The viewer sees it in the finished product: When a photographer can use his artistic talent to lend context, it adds something else intangible. The more we know about the subject, the more we can relate to their story, and the more we feel a connection.
Photographer David Jay explains his artistry in a similar way. His recent work, The SCAR Project, is a series of large-scale portraits of young breast cancer survivors. “There is something so painfully beautiful in humanity,” he explains. “We recognize it instantly. The human condition. Hope, despair, love, loss, courage, fear. Such fragile beauty.”
And Jay says there’s one more thing necessary for a beautiful photo: Honesty. His mostly black and white portraits are raw and sometimes difficult to bear. But Jay insists that the public is ready and willing to find the beauty in these kinds of images. (He proves it with the success of The SCAR Project, on exhibit around the world and now made into both a book and a television documentary.) “The intelligence, compassion, humanity and maturity of the population is greatly underestimated by major media. I think society is not only prepared for images like this (and what they represent); I think they are starved for it.”
Images Copyright David Jay Photography. Used with permission.
Beauty, he says, is about “self acceptance, compassion, love, humanity. It’s about accepting all that life offers us.”
The harmonies and colors
A visual artist of another type, painter Mary Carroll Moore describes the harmony of line, shape and texture as her personal criteria for something beautiful. She says that in her experience, certain combinations of color can cause adjacent colors to vibrate intensely – to almost glow. Moore paints in the Impressionist style, where colors bend and blend to create form, distance and atmosphere. When she paints, in fact, she tries to keep her eyes and her vision relaxed, so she can see the “true” color – the overtones – that go beyond the local color on the tip of the paintbrush.
It is, perhaps, difficult for a non-artist to grasp those concepts fully. Moore offers one more defining point that might speak to others: Simplicity. “I feel beauty when something touches me in a wordless way, beyond my thoughts or opinions about it. So beautiful art can be quite simple; and complicated, ‘perfect’ art sometimes carries very little beauty for me.”
Now there’s a concept. Perfection is not necessarily beauty.
Nothing perfect ever stays
The topic of digitally enhanced images and the American standard of perfection gets discussed over and over – we all know, intellectually, that media-glossy fashion imagery isn’t a true representation. Like a lot of pop music, it can be over-produced to a degree that takes the human element out altogether. “You’re left with a perfection that is devoid of passion,” Howard suggests.
Such imagery is also often devoid of context, connection or the passage of time, and those things, too, are drivers of beauty. Think about it – we take photos at marriages, in regular intervals with young children, with the elderly – all are extraordinary life changes. Is it a purely documentary desire to take pictures in times like this, or is it that there’s something beautiful we didn’t have before, and we’re compelled to capture it?
“Beauty is about authenticity,” shares breast cancer survivor Terry Werth. “It is about taking time to see and appreciate the natural world. It is about living in the moment, cherishing the small things, and finding joy, humor, and meaning in every day.” Each day changes us slightly. Each day we are different – and perhaps change begets beauty. (Interestingly, one of the characteristics of Impressionist art is an “emphasis on accurate depiction of light in its changing qualities.”)
Changing day by day
You might be thinking, Sure. Change gave me my bald head and my chest scars… Are all of these definitions too lofty for the daily grind – the daily desire to look okay in the mirror? To look pretty? It depends on how you feel today. When you’re in the middle of treatments like chemotherapy and radiation, it’s understandably difficult to see the light in your own eyes. No woman wants to experience unwanted, radical changes to her appearance, and when we lose any of our features – hair, skin tone, coloring, breasts – we have to mourn that loss. We don’t feel beautiful then.
The book Beauty Pearls for Chemo Girls reminds readers that this is temporary. Its authors advise doing what you can to make yourself feel good during such trials, like wearing a wig (or not, if you prefer!), mixing your wardrobe up with new clothes and accessories, and trying new makeup techniques, because feeling good will help you to look good. The two concepts are intertwined.
In the end, the change that most survivors hold onto is a positive one. Werth explains that since having cancer, she has changed her routine. “The last thought I have before I go to sleep each night is: What brought me joy today? What people, places, and moments made me grateful to be alive?” Other women find new strength in themselves – to get through the difficult days, to try new activities and take on new challenges. Still others begin to share their experiences with fellow patients, allowing kindness to pour through their very presence.
However you do it, consciously finding beauty in every day is a change that is very important for healing.
Five to fight for
Light, connection, humanity, honesty, simplicity. It’s hard to imagine anyone disagreeing that those five things gracefully intertwine to produce the beautiful moments of life – and even the most beautiful people. We often say, “She has a certain light in her eyes” to describe a true beauty. Less is often more, in makeup and clothing – it’s simple, it’s honest. The connection and human goodness of a quiet meal with loved ones is absolutely beautiful.
So add those things to your life. Make sure you’re celebrating and experiencing light (and lighting your photos well)! Connect with others. Embrace everything as part of the human experience, be honest and enjoy the simple things.
You’ll know beauty when you see it.