by Jon Feinstein

Published on 03/26/ 2016

When Cara Phillips was eight years old, she began working as a professional model and actress. She was, as the industry referred to it at the time, a “summer girl,” living and attending school in her Michigan hometown from October through May, and moving to NYC in the summers to model for various campaigns. While this exposed her to the photographic process at an early age, the experience of being in front of the camera as an object of the industry’s gaze negatively impacted the way she saw herself, and would inform her own work in years to come. “The message was constant,” says Phillips. “if you were prettiest today, you wouldn’t be tomorrow. And your ‘beauty’ could be taken away at any moment by those who decided you possessed it.” Phillips’ experience has been an influence in several of her series over the past ten years that dissect not only the beauty industry’s role in creating damaging ideas about beauty, but also raise questions about photography’s history of manipulating our perception of the world.
Botox Mood Chart © Cara Phillips

“The message was constant. If you were prettiest today, you wouldn’t be tomorrow. And your ‘beauty’ could be taken away at any moment by those who decided you possessed it.”

“When I began studying photography, the idea of exploring it from the other side of lens,” she says, “just made sense.” During her childhood, she was surrounded by a wealth of photography books from her mother, a talented self-taught photographer, which narrowed the technical learning curve prior to her formal education. Her early influences came not only from this constant photographic environment, but from film and literature as well. “Meaning is woven into the story,” she says, “and as the reader you must discover it for yourself, and you won’t necessarily find the same things as another reader.” She’s paralleled this to photography’s role as a communication tool. “In a single image or a series of images,” she says, “you provide viewers with visual information that is as explicit as language, but you can also communicate much more.” Phillips’ practice rests on this idea, and photography’s complex and challenging ability to communicate ideas. She began making her own photographs in her late twenties when she left the beauty industry to study photography under Joel Sternfeld and Penelope Umbrico at Sarah Lawrence College. “They had such different approaches and ideas about work. I think Joel helped me go from someone snapping decent photos to someone who understood how to communicate larger ideas through imagery. Penelope challenged me to breakdown the dogma of photographic history and image constructs.”
White Consultation Room © Cara Phillips

Phillips’ first two “serious photographs:” an image of an empty beauty salon, and another using surgery lights as an alternate light source, became the lynchpin for her first major body of work: Singular Beauty. The series, made between 2004 and 2008, capture the terrifying, sterile environments and tools of plastic surgery: offices, operating rooms, liposuction devices and laser machines photographed under cold artificial light. The pictures, entirely devoid of people, read as science fiction narratives – operating rooms could be chambers for experimentation on new specimens, and the machines that promise to enhance and perfect are strangely personified as monsters.

Green Recovery Bed © Cara Phillips
Blue Before & After Room © Cara Phillips

Red Liposuction Machine, a photograph of six red-capped fat deposit canisters on wheels, shot against the blue wall of its operating room reads oddly like a portrait: an anthropomorphic robot confronting the viewer with a nine-mile stare. The red tubes that protrude from its tops equally resemble colorful children’s drinking straws and alien antennas, and in turn, are just as alluring as they are frightening. In another image, Green Recovery Bed, a hospital bed holds an oddly seductive pose, inviting the viewer in, despite its menacing light. These pictures respond to America’s cultural fixation with physical perfection, but avoid obvious or heavy-handed graphics in exchange for a subtler exploration of a problem heavily ingrained in American culture . These behind the-scenes photographs are not blood-soaked. There are no pictures of fat deposits or surgery disasters, yet there is a quiet, uncomfortable violence within each image that is far more unnerving. “The project attempts to convey that this pursuit is both a complex and pervasive part of American society,” says Phillips. “Advanced technology enables us to correct and enhance our bodies and there is a never ending array of new procedures that can make us beautiful. The process of remaking ourselves has become a full time job”.

White Consultation Chair © Cara Phillips
Teal Anesthesia Machine © Cara Phillips

One of the most compelling pieces to conveying the conceptual ideas behind Singular Beauty and Phillips’ later series is her ability to seamlessly represent beauty and terror in the same frame. They have a visual order, an immaculate attention to light, color and organization of space, transforming the horrific into images one might hang above the couch.
(Untitled) Ultraviolet #5 © Cara Phillips

As Phillips was near finished making Singular Beauty, she began working on Ultraviolent Beauties. With this work, Phillips departed the fluorescent lit offices and operating rooms in exchange for a makeshift portrait studio New York City’s densely trafficked streets. Again using a 4x5 camera for its intensified ability to render detail and tonal range, Phillips began making seated street portraits of friends and strangers. But instead of using daylight or a traditional strobe, she captured her subjects with a process that replicated the quality of UV light used by dermatologists to show their patients’ “unseen” sun damage and sell anti-aging treatments. The resulting photographs are hyper-realistic and like Singular Beauty, equally beautiful as they are disturbing.

On the surface, Phillips’ Ultraviolet Beauties function like dermatologists’ skin damage photographs: they make the viewer aware of varying degrees of sun damage and provoke fear. The face, for example, especially on those with lighter skin hues, becomes a scorched canvas, freckles seem ominous, and the subjects’ eyes -closed to avoid exposure to the piercingly bright UV light - might remind us of our mortality. But for Phillips, sun damage is the last thing these images are about. She does not intend her pictures to provoke disgust, but instead, aims to question how portraits function, and challenge their ability to reveal what lies beneath the surface of the skin. “What can a two-dimensional representation really capture about a person’s interior?” she asks, “…and in a culture dominated by retouched images…how do we measure the truth of a portrait?” Ironically, when this series went viral in 2012, and again in 2014 with coverage in commercial news outlets like The Daily Mail, the story and public response focused largely on the surface, using words like ‘shocking’ and ‘stunning’ in their captions and headlines. “I think the internet thrives on new and gimmicky. If you present the images purely in the sun damage/invisible photography context I can see why there was a large audience.”
(Untitled) Ultraviolet #80 © Cara Phillips
(Untitled) Ultraviolet #141 © Cara Phillips

Both technically and conceptually, Phillips time studying with Penelope Umbrico at Sarah Lawrence years prior helped shape the way she thought about making these photographs. While the images are near-immaculate, Umbrico’s early advice helped get her guard down to make images with the concept shinning loudest. “She encouraged us to be down and dirty,” says Phillips, "to speak with the form until we were more sure about the conceptual framework. I don’t think I would have been willing to try so many things and then abandon them if I hadn’t studied with her. These trials initially included an entire series of UV image made only of aspiring female actresses sourced from Backstage Magazine, but were not as compelling as her street portraits, and ultimately abandoned. For Phillips, much of this trial-and-error is about beginning with an initial idea, realizing its mistakes, and refining until her ideas are clear. “I think all of my work has been me making one whole project based on an initial idea and instinct.” she adds. “Then I realize it is just not quite right, then I go back and make the work that I am supposed to. It is a brutal process, but the only way to make work that is really good I think. You need to be willing to take a hard look at what you have done, and push yourself to be better.”

"What can a two-dimensional representation really capture about a person’s interior? And in a culture dominated by retouched images…how do we measure the truth of a portrait?”

(Untitled) Ultraviolet Son #2 © Cara Phillips
Green (Scanning electron microscope image of cosmetic pigment) © Cara Phillips

In her most recent work Elemental Beauty, Cara Phillips takes her exploration of photography’s deceptive visual language a step further with a series of photographs that use a scanning electron microscope (SEM) to unveil the elements of makeup unseen to the naked eye.The SEM focuses a beam of high energy electrons, generating various signals at the surface of solid specimens, and reveals enhanced information about the material, including chemical composition and structure. The resulting black and photographs look like abstract, magnified piles of debris, sometimes floating, lacking gravity. With a nod to the series’ title, they provide a visual representation of the elements that compose beauty products, and are as equally seductive as they are disconcerting.

For most of photography’s history the medium has been predominately white and male. And the way we believe that truth can be communicated through images was shaped by male perspectives. So these ‘truths’ are subjective and skewed.”

Gold (Scanning electron microscope image of cosmetic pigment) © Cara Phillips
Black Oxide (Scanning electron microscope image of cosmetic pigment) © Cara Phillips

For Phillips, these images have many functions. On one level, they break down what we see in advertising every day - polished, airbrushed, idealized, into its raw form. But, like Singular Beauty and Ultraviolet Beauties, Elemental Beauty is aimed less at exposing destructive elements, and focused instead on raising questions about the nature of photography. Like the controlled process and lighting conditions of her UV portraits, this work follows rigid parameters that encourage viewers to see, and think visual language in a new way.

Blue (Scanning electron microscope image of cosmetic pigment) © Cara Phillips

“I have a fundamental distrust of a fixed photographic truth," she says, "this is part of being a feminist artist. For most of photography’s history the medium has been predominately white and male. And the way we believe that truth can be communicated through images was shaped by male perspectives. So these ‘truths’ are subjective and skewed.” For Phillips, her work aims to rethink photography’s historically male narrative. While Phillips’ experience within the beauty industry was a significant part of her original motivation, to producing Singular Beauty, over time her work has taken a broader, more holistic cultural reflection and of how images can be used to establish, and maintain our cultural norms, and in Phiilps’ case, to challenge them.