Photobook on the pantheon of esthetics Singular Beauty: interview with author-photographer Cara Phillips and graphic designer Hans Gremmen

An intriging, yet clinical in appearence, photobook in a box: Singular Beauty is published by the Dutch publishing house Fw:. In a print run of 700 copies, this is a first publication by Cara Phillips and was nominated as it came out for the Aperture/Paris Photo Book of the Year/ the First Photobook 2012. The judging will be done LIVE at Paris Photo. The nominated books will be exhibited during the event and also at Aperture Foundation in New York afterwards. Cara would like to make a triology. Singular Beauty will be one of three volumes, all different themes and explorations of similar ideas about beauty, women and culture, and the selling of.

CG

If I win the 10.000USD, I will be able to finance my second book…

MT

A Kickstarter funding overnight, so to speak

Cara is sitting in a strategy conference room in New York during the Skype interview. She is working as a photo editor for a company designing websites for businesses: Federated Media, a custom publishing company. It is hard in NY: cost of living. Most artist have full time jobs, because there is almost no art funding. Professional photographers either work as college professors, do commissioned photography or, like Cara, are employed by corporate business.

Cara Phillips is a Brooklyn based artist. She came to photography later, did not take the traditional art route. She had a carrier as a make up artist in fashion in department stores. In her late twenties she decided to finish her undergraduate college degree at a small liberal arts college, Sarah Lawrence college in New York. Joel Sternfeld, an influential American, early color, documentary photographer was teaching there. And at that time she started to think of photography as a means to deal with issues that personally had effected her. Sofar her whole life had been in the beauty industry. At eight years old she started doing modelling; was in front of the camera as an object, making clothes attractive so people would buy them.

As a child that is a strange experience. You come into that very competative world, and have no means of self-worth, just figuring out what it means to be a person. You get a lot of criticism and dealing with competition at that young age had a profound effect on how I judged myself, my body, my physical appearance. I ended up having some serious struggles with my own body, with eating, with food. And ended up as a make up artist because it was the only skill I had taken from modelling. It was very stressfull, because my job is to make people feel bad about themselves, so I could provide and sell them products and could fix what was wrong with them. Photography became a way to think about all those experiences, considering them in a larger and political context in the US. The pressures on women, to be beautiful and perfect: it is an unattainable goal.

Singular Beauty is Cara’s first body of work as an artist. She started the project while studying and continued for two years after college. The images were produced between 2006 and 2008. She brought the project out into the art world in NY, unfortunately at the moment the bottom fell out, because of the economic crisis. It was a difficult time to be an emerging artist. The work was shown at group shows but it was difficult to find a publisher for a book on cosmetic surgery objects. The political  and social component were very important to her, and a book was the best way to bring these issues in a more accessible and targeted way.

CP

After school I had very little community in the world of photography. People like Alec Soth and Christian Petterson were blogging, and all people that were making important work, showing their work in galleries and museums. Maybe if I started to blog it might be a way to be part of a community. So my blog  Ground Glass was active between 2007-2010. It was a journal of an emerging photographer. When starting to work full time though,  it was difficult to keep  up. Furthermore, the photo blogging popularity started to wain. People started to use Tumbler and Facebook. So the blog became an archive of its time.

Sternfeld emphasized the idea of ‘the body of work’ which has a large scope, over a long period of time and goes indepth into an idea, a subject or place. He was inspired by Robert Frank‘s The Americans. I was thinking these huge male figures in American photography, dealing with these big themes, always about America, and politics. As a woman, part of our lifes, part of the female existence, certainly in the US, is in this Beauty World. A huge portion of our energy and time goes into maintaining our good looks, getting our hair done. It is considered a female thing. And nobody has done an exploration of this world in the way professional photographers have done regarding issues that are more ‘male’, in a traditional sense. I thought it was important to give these cosmetic spaces the same kind of attentiton as these male photographers had done in the past to these very large social issues, like poverty, war, themes of that nature. Thinking about beauty in the US, and ageing, is a huge subject and could be anything from women getting their nails done, and getting their hair coloured to actually going to someone who will cut them open and put in a foreign object in order to have bigger breasts. At first I did somewhat of a traditional documentary and photographed  any kind of beauty place, like spas, make up stores. While photographing I started to see that the cosmetic surgery space is the ultimate expression of the desire to be beautiful. It is the most expensive and commited thing you can do to be beautiful. That’s when the project shifted and I focussed on the cosmetic offices exclusively.

Why did you publish through Kickstarter? And how did that work, an ‘All or Nothing Funding Model’?

Kickstarter got a lot of press in the US, a few years ago when they started out. Several artists and photographers had raised money through Kickstarter. Because funding of art is nonexistent. To give an example, in 2011, 3.000 photographers applied for a yearly grant in Upstate New York. Kickstarter reached out to me, in order to spread the variety of artists working through Kickstarter to raise money. By then I just had been in contact with graphic designer Hans Gremmen  (HG) and needed funding for the forthcoming book. it was a big risk, because a lot of things in the art world in the US go unspoken. Gallerists, museums and artists all do need other sources to bring in money to publish a book. No one ever tells you that. As an upcoming artist you have to navigate and figure these things out as you go along. If I would have publically said I need funding for my book, this somehow means I could not get a bigger institution behind me and find the money. However, what happened to me is, all the people in the commuity interested in photobooks: collectors, reviewers and writers of blogs, artists and others, who I really respect, were the people who bought my book. So in a way it becomes about people in the community supporting each other. People who would have bought the book anyway, but by pre-ordering it from Kickstarter they are allowing me to have the funds beforehand to finance the book. it creates a space for the photobook in the world before it exists.

How long did it take to raise the money?

You can’t get donations through Kickstarter, you pre-sell rewards. In fact you get something back for the money invested. You provide goods or services. Kickstarter takes a percentage of the funding. It is a for-profit corporation. In return, Kickstarter provides the platform, a website. Since Kickstarter was very succesfull, all kinds of other sites have come up and most do not have The “all or Nothing Funding model’. There are two ways of looking at it: if you get so close, and, for example, you get 16.000 USD, while you need 16.500 USD, how terrible that would be. However, Kickstarter has explained to me how it actually works. As you start to get closer to the goal and people realize you won’t get it if they don’t participate, it pushes people who maybe interested but distracted, too busy. You cannot put anything up longer then 60 days. I needed 45 days to raise the 16.000 USD. I had ‘backers’ from Istanbul, several people from Europe and a lot of people from the US.

The project more then succesfully raised its funding goal (15.800 USD) on january 20 2012: 250 packers pledged of 17.079 USD. 10 backers are listed as a ‘supporter’, in the final publication for 1.00 USD each. Most backers, 106 in total, got their very own copy, a custom totebag designed by Hans Gremmen and their names listed as a supporter in the back of the book. One backer payed 1.000 USD and obtained one 16×20 print, out of 4 images from your book. The person could choose from the cover image, Brown Consultation Chair, Red Liposuction Machine, or Blue Before & After Room. And of course receive a signed copy of Singular Beauty. Now you have experienced it all, how do you asses this way of crowd funding for photobook projects? And WHAT exactly is photographed, looking at these four specific images? 

If you need the infrastructure of the greater art world it means you can only do a book that fits into the ideas of the publishers /art world. By crowd funding, if you have a project that is not so sexy, you choose to do something different and take more of a risk. By pre-selling the book, you cover the costs of making it and be willing to take more risks, be more creative. Crowd funding is a way to freeing yourself as an artist from  the constraints of the world of publishing. Kickstarter was a very good experience for me, although it is a lot of work. Right now I am in the process of sending out all the books, I have to do that all myself. There’s a lot of paper work involved too. As a means of making art work in the US, it is the only succesfull option for artists now, unless you come from a very wealthy family.

Back to the images in the Kickstarter package deal, what do we see?

The cover photograph, White Consultation Bed Washington DC, is a bed in a doctor’s office, where you sit and have treatment, or discuss what you want to have done. This is an expensive, very succesfull cosmetic dermatology office, run by a female doctor, specialized in Washington political world as her main audience. Brown Consultation Chair is in Beverly Hills, a part that is called the Golden Triangle, probably one of the most famous areas of real estate in the world for cosmetic surgery. The top of cosmetic surgeons in the world have an office in the Golden Triangle. Famous for celebrety cosmetic surgery. Red Liposection Machine is from a surgery center in Orange County (CA). They basically built a mini hospital, next to the local hospital, which is a private institution, in order to do multiple cosmetic surgery. There are something like 15 operating rooms, where the doctors come and operate all day long. You would walk in the recovery room and there would be 30 people that all just had cosmetic surgery. This liposection machine, is the only one I have seen, that had room to accomodate so much fat suction! Before and After Rooms were always an interesting part of this world for me, because they contained photo studios within these doctors offices; the place where the patients were photographed. People ask ofter: ‘why are there no people in your images’? There are several reasons for that. One of them is that I want the images to tell more about the people that view them, then about those that had surgery. It’s  creating a space you can step into, being inside, creating that sensibilty of being naked to be photographed, as a visual judgement of yourself. Sometimes there were patients in the waiting room, or patients that just had surgery in the chair that I photographed.

The rooms are clinical, polished, like they were cleaned before you opened your camera.

Actually I did a lot of art directing afterwards. As I said, I wanted to capture more what it felt like to be there, then what the places actually were. I turn of the overhead light, often I use surgery light and put a beam on the machine to create spotlight effect. If there were trash cans or other signs,  I moved them around. I was merely interested in what these spaces represent.

Talking about the typological approach, your work also reminds me of Jacqueline Hassink‘s work The Table of Power (1996/ 2011).

People do make reference to her work, also because of the feminist approach and a similar way of working. I did not know of Hassink’s work, while working on Singular Beauty, but do respect her work very much. There is another photographer, an American-Canadian, Lynn Cohen, my teacher Sternfeld told me about her work, who was influential. Lynn Cohen juxtaposed the interiors of European spas with nuclear facilities. Lucinda Devlin is her student. Devlin photographed death chambers in the US in The Omaga Suites. I knew about her work while making the project.

Let’s continue looking at the images. What is a ‘Botox Mood Chart’? What is a ‘Watermelon Roll’?

botox-mood-chart-beverly-hills-ca

Not having people in the images, I was always looking for sign of them. The Botox Mood Chart is a surrogate for the doctor. He has chosen to put that map up on the refrigerator. As people get Botox they look at that, I guess you can call it, a piece of art work. Bringing into the book the sensibility for the people that actually are in these spaces. Watermelon Roll is a drawing of a problem area for women. Maybe not so much for the Netherlands, but if you read fashion magazines in the US, there are many articles how to target problem areas on a woman’s body. Those areas, related to the buttocks, are on that chart.

Actually, a framed pin up, in blue bikini, is the only recognisable person in the book, in the image entitled the Playboy Consultation Chair. 

That is a velvet painting that the doctor used to decorate his office. The clinic specializes in Playboy centerfolds. Doing breasts inplants for women, in order to look like the women portrayed in Playboy magazine. The whole office was decorated with Playboy playmates: images of women that look like Playboy models, and Playboy magazines. That is how the surgeon presents himself: the Playboy boobs guy. If this is your idea of beauty, Playboy traditional American, he can provide that.

Did you witness operations? Because there is one picture, Topical Anticeptic, actually showing, what looks like blood clots, in a pink earshaped tupperware, next to a brush.

yes, I photographed two surgeries and witnessed three. Interesting, everybody reads that as blood. In fact Hans wanted to put that image in the book, it hasn’t been in the series before. In the book, this image, like Botox Mood Chart, is a moment of pause, like a laughter, taking you out of this very dark place. This image, however, is more of a dramatic punctuation. Telling you, yes this is surgery: people are cutting into you. It’s is actually Betadine  in that pink container: a topical anticeptic. They paint your body with it before surgery. So what you see on this picture was left over from a surgery.

What does the title of you book refer to? What does it actually mean: Singular Beauty? 

There are several reasons for the title. In a way the project is a typology. There is a repetition of images of machines and chairs: a similar image of many things, as you wish. It is also very much about something else. These are places which are offering a kind of very specific beauty: a singular beauty. There is ONE singular message. If you look at the way cosmetic surgeons work, their clients, after surgery kind of all look the same. ONE form of beauty, arbitrairly decided by these surgeons. All operating on a uniform esthetics of what is beauty.

In the summer of 2011 I went to Kassel to meet European publishers. I really liked the books made in Germany, the Netherlands, in Switzerland. Earlier I had met the publishers at the New York Art Book Fair. In my research for the dOCUMENTA in Kassel, I learned about Fw: and Hans Gremmen. We actually did not meet in Kassel, but by a sheer stroke of luck I happened to be going to DARTS in Utrecht afterwards, and met Hans there. About a month later, he e-mailed a pdf with an idea to do a book. We went from there, even without a discussion about what a book could be, what the collaboration between a photographer and designer could be. Without talking about my book, my work. It is not so much esthetics that counts, but how you want to work in collaborating on a book. Some photographers have a very specific idea how they want their book. The graphic designer is merely implementing this idea into the book. For me, I want to work with a designer who is able to, through design and typography, bring another layer of meaning and another sensibility to the bookproject.

There is a PINK Consultation Chair in New York, a GREEN Consultation Chair in Century City, in LA, a BLACK Liposuction Machine in Orange County, a WHITE Consultation Bed in Washington DC. Is this referring to, what you call, the typological approach? And why this variety of colours? What does it mean?

I wanted to bring up this idea, these are doctors offices. In a way they all look quite similar. The same size room, one chair. However, in cosmetic surgery, the pantheon of esthetics, everything is about the concept of beauty. The doctors go through a lot of trouble to stylize  their medical offices. But it is in such a tight constraint. All they can do is order a different colour of leather! Green leather as opposed to brown, they are all colour-coded rooms. Doctors brand their offices by colour. I graze this idea: it is not a medical office, it is an esthetic medical office.

The text by Meredith Jones, in the back of the book, is entitled ‘Architectures of Soft-Control’. What does she actually mean by that? And what exactly are ‘Heterotopic Images of Absence and Transformation’? I consider it a cryptic essay title.

Well, she is a scholar, in terms of heterotopic images, she talks about Foucault’s idea about what spaces represent. For example, the waiting room is a place of an action that has not happened yet, or will happen. Places that are ordinary in our existence representing much more then they are, in a philisophical sense. In her essay, Jones talks about certain things in our regular lives that mean something. In a way she states these cosmetic surgery rooms are places of transformation in the Foucault sense  of the heterotopic space. The idea of ‘absence’ is that these rooms are empty, waiting for people to be transformed, so to speak, because there is nothing.

Jones also presents these spaces as being seperate, as taking us away from everything that has to do with a person’s everyday life. 

The title ‘Architecture of Soft Control’, I think, refers to our way to control our bodies. A very strong idea in Amercian culture is self-control, self-reliance. You make things happen, do things on you own. It is always the individual. So taking control of your body, cosmetic surgery is often marketed in the US as an act of self-reliance. If I make myself good looking, I can do better in this world, is the slogan. it is all very much about succes. I will get a better job, and get promoted because I look younger. I somehow will be able to have controll of things. The idea of changing the exterior in order to change the interior is the antithesis of all religion. For that reason I photographed all these place in a religious light; replicating the light of places of worship. it’s the opposite idea of transforming by belief, by God:  your faith will make you a better human being. In cosmetic surgery the outside is transformed, thus the inside will be transformed.

The American idea of beauty gets exported, is westernizing Asia. In Korea eyelid fat is put in. Outside the US much of cosmetic surgery is related to race and etnicity, as well as rating your etnicity. Whereas in the US is it all about beauty and sex. In a way the US exports their technologies. They work in different places. Of all body repairs and aging treatments, Botox is most popular in the US, next to liposuction, nose jobs and breast implants, and facelifts. Laser and topical treatments are popular as well. You can get them done on your lunch hour. It’s a business.

What do you think about the business yourself, the ‘sorting, fixing, deleting and adding’?

I think it is very complicated. Anything you have to create a market for is problematic. Cosmetic surgery is NOT plastic surgery. If somebody has had an accident and they need to be put together, of course you want to have this technology. It seems like the cosmetic surgery industry has worked very hard to make people think this is required. It’s a false marked strategy. A created need, we do not need. It’s very much about how corporations create desire. I find this problematic in the world in general. It creates an everlasting sense of NOT ENOUGH.

Why is Singular Beauty published by Fw:? Please elaborate on the collaboration with Cara Phillips and  your motivation to publish her first photobook. 

HG 

Cara Phillips was tipped by several people to approach me as a designer for Singular Beauty. We met in Utrecht, I looked at her book project and thought making the design for this book project would be an interesting challenge. What appeals to me is a kind of friction in her photography. From a designers point of view I knew straithaway what kind of book it should NOT become. That triggered me to find out what it had to be. The name Fw: was already raised as a potential publisher. Our publishing house is focussing on working methods in photography which are difficult to label or categorize. Cara’s work complies with these conditions.

Which book technical decisions did you take? Please explain further on the choises made regarding binding, Japanese block, type of paper, a box rahter than a cover.

It’s a Japanese binding without a cover. Four staples keep the inside work together. A thin type of glazed paper with a considerable opacity is what I’ve chosen. Because of the relative low paper basis weight in grammage (gsm), the inside work is quite fragile. In order to protect the book I designed a box serving a s a hard cover for the book. Each book is sold laminated and sealed.

An adequate, clinical design, if I may say so, arising from the white frame. Most pictures are bleeding pictures, but not quite touching the edge of the page, leaving a small white vermicelli margin. One photograph per page. Seven pictures are spreads, each on a double page, like ‘The Breast Book’, ‘The Cutlets’, ‘The Blue laser Room’ and ‘Clamp’. The captions are consistently placed on the opposite white page. The text, in black ink, is printed in mirror image, appearing reversed on the back side of the page. Please explain further about the lay-out.  

The lay-out is actually simple: all consultation chairs and rooms are placed on the left page. Machinery and tools on the right page. This created a rhythm in the book. In order to gently break that rhythm to some degree, to break the motion,  I made spreads. There is no further explanation, it just worked well. I do believe in rhythm and rules, not in dogmas nor doctrines.

Indeed, the captions are printed, on the inside of the paper, in reverse. Due to the opacity of the paper, you can read the caption right through the paper. My intention was to come up with a solid typography, which would not distract the attention from the pictures. I could have printed the text in grey ink, but that is not in my nature to do so. That’s why I choose for this typographic solution.

The book is vurnerable, naked so to say, without a cover. The cover image curls up as soon as you open the box for the first time. As vurnerable as our skin, as the human body to ageing? 

Like I said, I knew what kind of book it should not become: an oblong coffeetable book; it does’nt suit the photography.  Cara’s work is uncomfortable. And therefor I wanted the book to reflect that; to have an intrinsic friction in itself. That explains the choice of thin paper and the somewhat bold finishing. What I wanted to show is the sheer industry of a book like this: a naked product, no accessories. At the same time it had to be a book which is only perfect the moment you buy it, you receive it. Each book is sealed, wrinkle-free. But that does not last; it may have creases from shelving, bumps. Ephemerality is a irreversible process.

Part of the package deal which a ‘backer’ of 2.500 USD obtains, contributing to the crowd funding project is five books from the Fw: catalogue. Is this a way to tap into a new market for photobooks?

In order to make Kickstarter work, you have to come up with a progressive reward system. It starts with step 1 (a donation of 1 USD), in return the supporter receives a ‘thank you’. Step 2 adds a card to the ‘thank you’, and so on. So not with the intention to dump books from our catalogue, but to raise money. And, yes, we have  succeeded in that. Well, to my knowledge nobody invested 2.500 USD, so that offer has not been enticing….

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