A New Kind of Beauty

Photographs by Phillip Toledano
Dewi Lewis Publishing. 2012

Reviewed by Daniel W Coburn

Issue 45

Phillip Toledano’s portraits reference classic renaissance paintings by Caravaggio and Jan Van Eyck. The first portrait in A New Kind of Beauty presents a man named Steve. His body is the archetype of masculinity, rippling and cleaving under a crimson loincloth. In much the same way Caravaggio paints John the Baptist, Toledano photographs Steve, drawing our attention to the volume of his muscular frame and the texture of his skin. Upon closer examination we realize that Steve has been collaborating with a different type of artist: a sculptor, a plastic surgeon. But, at what point does a human sculpture become overworked?

Toledano creates a highly detailed portrait, exposing every hair, pore, scar, and stretch mark. We are hypnotized by these images that are simultaneously beautiful and grotesque, conjuring feelings of pleasure and guilt as our gaze traverses the surface of their bodies without distraction. Toledano elevates the status of his subjects by casting them as religious icons, figures from Greek mythology, or sixteenth century aristocrats. Their skin appears grey and lifeless, like that of a corpse. Or is this designed to mimic the color of stone? Referencing the marble used in classical Greek or Roman sculptures.

Should we resist the impulse to pass judgment on these people? As William Hunt points out in the epilogue “This new kind of beauty is in the eyes of the beheld, not the beholder.” Does it matter what we think? As with any great portrait, we learn more about ourselves than we do about the subject.

Toledano’s sitters employ plastic surgery and body manipulation in the service of beauty. However, it is the byproduct of this phenomenon that is truly beautiful and engaging. By altering their physical identity, these people often defy outdated social constructs. It becomes difficult to determine the gender, sex, race or age of these people. Toledano’s images are highly crafted, leaving his viewers yearning for something very specific. I would argue that the power of this work lies in its inherent ambiguity.

A New Kind of Beauty is a well made and handsome book. The cover is wrapped in one of Toledano’s images with a linen binding. It contains 64 pages of stunning images and an essay by photography advocate and collector William Hunt. This book will be a great addition to your library.

Buy the book here

Daniel W. Coburn is a photographer and graduate student at the University of New Mexico.
To view Daniel's photography, please visit his website. Daniel was featured in Fraction Issue 20.
Follow Daniel on Twitter : @danielwcoburn