Everyone has an opinion on the plastic surgery industry, from stars who unabashedly credit it for their eternal youthfulness to those who decry the unnatural beauty ideals it helps to uphold. But how many of us who haven’t gone under the knife in the name of physical perfection have actually observed the spaces where and the mechanisms by which it achieves that end? While we may have glimpsed these operations on some exploitative makeover reality show, we’ve never seen plastic surgery clinics as Brooklyn-based photographer Cara Phillips captures them.
Phillips’ series, Singular Beauty, eschews portraits of patients and procedures in favor of operating theaters and recovery rooms, terrifying fat-sucking apparatuses, and “breast books” where women can select bustlines the way most of us are used to picking out hairstyles. Aside from their carefully chosen subjects, it’s the lighting — equal parts stark and beatific — in these photos that reveals the contradictions between plastic surgery’s utopian ideal and its harsh reality. We spoke to Phillips via email about Singular Beauty, which was recently published as a book by Fw: and is also available online via Photo-Eye.
Flavorwire: Why did you decide to do a photo series documenting plastic surgery clinics?
Cara Phillips: Before I came to photography, I had spent most of my life in the beauty business, first as a child model and then as a makeup artist working in luxury department stores. Those experiences left me with some serious body-image issues. So the decision to focus my camera on beauty started off as a personal exploration, but as the project progressed, my focus shifted to the larger cultural issues of aging, desire, and physical perfection. The cosmetic surgery industry is the ultimate expression of the relentless American pursuit of youth and beauty.
Your photos include images of one office’s “Breast Book” and even a bloody kidney dish. Was it difficult to get such extensive access to plastic surgery clinics?
Actually the substance in the pink dish is Betadine, but everyone sees it as blood. When I set out to make this work in 2005, cosmetic surgery was in the midst of it largest increase in 15 years. There were three prime-time shows on about cosmetic surgery and an article every month in the major women’s magazines about the latest and greatest procedures. Even The New York Times was regularly covering the industry in their “Skin Deep” column. This spotlight on the cosmetic surgery in the media made it easier to get access to the offices. Plus, I was only asking to photograph their offices, what harm could I do shooting a consultation room?
How has your history as a child model and makeup artist informed the series, and your photography in general?
You could say that I was formed by the beauty industry. I started modeling at eight, and I have worked in or around it ever since. While those experiences have certainly not been so good for my body image, they do give me a unique perspective. That perspective allows me to imbue a deeper understanding into what are seemingly very straightforward pictures. I am not sure when I will be done with beauty as a subject, I completed another body of work that deals with similar issues called Ultraviolet Beauties in 2010.
Click through for a gallery of images from Singular Beauty.