A photograph is not an opinion. Or is it?” –Susan Sontag
Tim Arroyo’s Metamorphosis: The Inner Beauty Project exhibit examines beauty from a linear perspective. It’s on display at ArtStreet at the University of Dayton, Ohio. According to the exhibit description, the show is based on “an observation of the unwillingness to be photographed and shedding one’s outer layer to reveal a beauty from within.” I’d venture to say it’s also an obsessive look at beauty from a man who loves women and wants them to see the equanimity, evenness and equality in their physical features through one photographic process. The equality is not to say they are all the same, because the women, obviously are different—ages, races and ethnicities. However, there’s a reverence in the simplicity. The fact is that this particular approach does not detect make up with the exception of a small amount of black eyeliner (which a few women opted to use). I’ve seen him experiment with this approach for the last two years or so. The pupils look dilated and there’s a graying of the features no matter the skin tone of the subject. This blurring of identity creates a dramatic tension. The viewer is immediately drawn to the eyes and story behind the portrait of each woman staring directly out, in essence, proclaiming the universality of her beauty. He elevates the idea of beauty with this focus on sight. There are stories I can invent just by looking at each woman.
I was asked to be a part of the project and agreed at first, but changed my mind when my grandmother passed away. I felt sad and vulnerable and didn’t want to be photographed as part of the exhibit. Why? Because the exposure, photographic and through the promise of an exhibit, created an emotional risk for me. And I didn’t want to be documented in such a raw way when I felt raw.
Vulnerability and Imperfection
That rawness and vulnerability is what’s explored in both of Brené Brown’s TED Talks on vulnerability and shame. As I recently told a colleague who had not heard of her research, you need to watch the videos, just from a human being perspective. You’re life will be expanded, better. Her class, The Gifts of Imperfection has generated a social media movement causing women to post “regular” photos of themselves with “I am imperfect and I am enough.” (As a side note, there’s also a powerful lesson in her talks about how women prevent men from being vulnerable. Recall if you’ve ever referred to a grown man as “being a baby” when he is ill. It’s that nurturing and wholehearted love that we all need.)
Seeing Tim’s work made me think of two expansive photography projects. The earlier, dates back to 1979 and is a follow-up project from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, titled: The Family of Woman, A Worldwide Photographic Perception of Female Life and Being. The other is, “Women” by Annie Leibovitz. I was blessed to see the latter in person at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC in 1999. Susan Sontag wrote the essay to accompany the Leibovitz exhibit:
Any large scale picturing of women belongs to the ongoing story of how women are perceived, and how they are invited to think of themselves.”
I’ve observed Tim Arroyo’s work for close to eight years. As a fellow photographer and a progressive woman, I’ve thought, “Man, this guy likes women. He likes women’s bodies. In all their shapes and forms. Everybody’s sexy.” He also has some rather bizarre shots of beautiful women, altered into what I would call Cyclops and other creatures from his imagination. I’ve been at exhibits and watched the reaction to some of his more unusual contortions of beauty. There’s a fascination by some viewers with the idea of how traditional beauty can be converted into something shocking that makes your head tilt sideways. Often, especially with his own eerie self-portraits, I have a tickling in my brain that reminds me of the work of Rene Magritte mixed with Picasso’s Cubist era and a big pot of Dali Surrealism.
And this has made me wonder, from a feminist perspective, is he objectifying women? Or am I being a prudish, despite all my proclamations of progressiveness? If you’ve read any earlier blog posts, you’ll notice that I’ve been a bit obsessive with Danielle LaPorte’s The Desire Map. Through that inverted approach to goal-setting, I’ve looked at core desired feelings to help guide how I want to feel every day. And I’ve asked, what’s wrong with a mother in her forties also wanting to look sexy? I was raised in a diverse neighborhood dominated by liberals and intellectuals. Many folks looked down upon physical beauty and fashion as superficial. I’ve learned since climbing out of poor health after childbirth, that self-care from the inside out generates love and beauty. Sontag writes, “But in real life it’s still common to begrudge a woman who has both beauty and intellectual brilliance…” I’ve embraced the fact that external beauty and creative fashion can further my own artistic expression.
What’s wrong then, with a photographer who obsesses over images of all sorts of women in different shapes and sizes, with and without tattoos, with big bellies and thighs, with natural hair and hair full of product? What’s wrong with his bowing down to the power of their beauty, sensuality and rawness in this Metamorphosis exhibit? I’ll tell what’s wrong with it: nothing. That’s what I found through years of watching Tim’s work. It’s his work. Folks seek him out to document their moments in time. Even as some of his images are not to my taste and make me uncomfortable, they have prompted me to think about beauty, women and art. I’ve also reflected upon the physical body and how it can be manipulated to form beautiful and ugly images depending upon one’s perspective. One of my favorite people in the world doing great things for the image of women’s bodies is Taryn Brumfitt from Australia. She has started the Body Image Movement and has rocked the world in terms of being happy with her current state of normalness. This comes from a former fashion model. She has made me rethink beauty and the physical and so has Tim.
Wild Wisdom and the Artful Arc of Aging
One other element that pleased me mightily about Metamorphosis, is that it shifts perceptions on aging. Sontag wrote, “…women are punished more than men are by the changes brought about by aging. Ideals of appearance such as youthfulness and slimness are in large part now created and enforced by photographic images.” Some of my favorite images in the show are of the women advanced in age. For more than a decade, I’ve had the privilege of working with women ten to forty years my senior, and they are some of the most beautiful women I’ve ever met. Like the great Dr. Maya Angelou wrote in her poem, Phenomenal Woman excerpted here:
Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery,
When I try to show them
They say they still can’t see.
It’s in the arch of my back
The sun of my smile
The ride of my breasts
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
You can listen to Dr. Angelou recite the full poem here.
Story of Origin
As with many visual artists, Tim thrives on images, not words. I know this because he doesn’t talk that much. He has worked for years with maternity photography hashing out life before life comes. This stems from a man with a thriving family, who has also seen his share of loss. He is the father of two beautiful girls and married to a wildly feminist woman who doesn’t stop.
Tim has done some very interesting studies on smoke, nature and botany, which can also be very sensual, beautiful and ugly in an aesthetically pleasing way. (I’m a huge fan of object photography and fascinated by work like Irving Penn’s studies of trash on the sidewalk.) Some of my favorite works are Tim’s objects, particularly his portals series.
It’s clear that Tim has a number of talents as a professor and as a photographer. As any artist or entrepreneur knows, art and ideas can create conversation and controversy. That’s when we’ve done our job to make you think, feel and react. Seth Godin wrote a wonderfully short post this year about the humility of the artist. It may seem arrogant to say, “Perhaps this isn’t for you.” In actuality, he argues, it’s arrogant to think that your work could appeal to all. “Finding the humility to happily walk away from those that don’t get it unlocks our ability to do great work.” To connect with Tim Arroyo, check out his website or like him on Facebook.