Our perceptions of what is “natural” and what is “fabricated” have become increasingly blurred in our technical world.  The theory of art(ifice) becomes increasingly important.  In the mid-19th century, art took on a perspective as an improver of nature.  Landscape gardeners like the Englishman Capability Brown pushed and pulled the countryside to make it more and more like the natural state.  Nature wasn’t even good enough to be itself.  In contrast, the hyper-organized parterres and forced perspective boulevard in the manner of Haussmann and Le Nôtre defied the the loose visual organisation of the natural world into a man-made concept of beauty which was entirely unnatural.

Photoshop, Instagram and any number of powerful yet nimble programs has made us question what is true in any picture of a person.  The controversy of regarding the photoshopping of models for commercial publication has been the bete noire of the fashion retailing industry.  As we adjust our world to fit our comfort zone, there is a loss of our link to these natural processes.

“The more we study Art, the less we care about Nature.”

-The Decay of Laying

Esther Honig, a journalist and blogger, had a simple premise of taking a plain, no-make-up photo of herself and then contacted photoshop freelancers worldwide to have them modify the photo to their conception of beauty.  Called Before & After, a selection of the results are below.

Note:  The image on the left is of Esther Honig before any retouching has occurred

(Source:  Esther Honig)

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The images are, from a certain perspective, striking.  Striking not in there difference but in their banality.  Some are quite distorted from the original, like the flowing black hair of the Philippines or the perverse, gaunt prom queen from the United States, but looking at the slideshow of images, I was struck by how similar the “enhancements” were.  For the most part, there was slight changes in skin “glow” as opposed to massive changes in skin tone.  Additionally, a bit more red on the lips and a little bit more liner, and, for only a few, a tag of blush.  In our rapidly evolving world of globalization, our conceptions of beauty are getting closer towards a mean rather than a divergence of nationality or ethnicity.

Ms Honig has attempted to present herself as a “neutral” female for the terms of the project, but nothing is every neutral.  She carries a tremendous amount of cultural determinants and socio-economic norms that exist in a hegemony around Western culture.  It would be impossible to “enhance” in any other way than within the cultural norm that we associate her with.  From this standpoint, the most interesting interpretation was the one submitted by Morocco.  The restrained (but present) make-up and the head scarf provide cultural signs that are different from Ms Honig’s signs.  Given the current cultural conflicts that are occurring around the world, the desire can be to post signs on the subject in the vain attempt that this will signify a set of cultural norms.

I wonder if a different picture was presented – a young woman from Namibia or Guangdong – would we “enhance” that person to a different set of cultural norms (lighter skin, wider eyes) or would we accept that individuals cultural pre-conditions and find out what was beautiful about her outside our pre-conceptions?