Mask of Perfection: Marc Erwin Babej, with Maria M. LoTempio, MD
Mask of Perfection focuses on the complex and ambivalent relationship between the beauty we perceive subjectively on the one hand, and the plastic surgeon’s scientific, geometry-based standard of beauty on the other. While evolutionary psychology has demonstrated a high degree of consistency at the root level of beauty (such as clear skin and a waist-hip ratio around 0.7), more specific perceptions of beauty have seesawed over the course of history. However, significant changes in the view of human beauty have been rare, and coincide with discontinuities in history, and the history of art: the Renaissance marked a shift toward sleeker body ideal, with slim figure and a flattened chest. The Baroque idealized a fuller body type. More recently, the end of World War I and concomitant changes in the social order, resulted in a preference for a slim, more androgynous female body type.
The current change in beauty ideal, however, is more profound – in both kind and degree – than any that preceded it. Previous manifestations of a beauty ideal could be discovered in the flesh, and represented in art. They were also concretized and rationalized by experts on the subject (think of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man). But any individual’s conforming to, or diverging from, the ideal of the time was a matter of “god-given” gift (or absence thereof).
The currently emerging ideal of beauty is unprecedented in that it is actionable – and conformity to it widely available. Lips like Angelina Jolie; breasts like Scarlett Johansson; a butt like Kim Kardashian; less slanted eyes like a white woman; a wrinkle-free complexion like a cosmetics model? Available at a plastic surgeon near you. The emerging ideal not only reflects changing taste, but represents a radical shift in the understanding of beauty itself.
Hand in hand with these changes in kind and degree goes a change in mode of propagation: as more and more of the most prominent figures in contemporary society (celebrities, media personalities; increasingly also “serious” figures like politicians) are being adjusted by plastic surgeons to the new standard, it is influencing the way the general public perceives who and what is beautiful – and what members of the general public decide to alter about themselves.
This series portrays the uneasy coexistence between a post-Soviet generation and relics of its prehistory. The images were created in August 2013 around Minsk and in Ukraine’s Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Zone of Alienation (also known as the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone). Against this backdrop stand the Chernogirls. Heiresses of the Soviet past but decidedly not its products. Emancipated, worldly, highly educated; individualistic, self-sufficient and disinclined to obey authority. Framed by Soviet-era settings, but misfits in them, they’re flagrantly unrepresentative of their own societies – arguably of any mainstream. They embody what lies ahead: a clean break with the past.
Buddhists in Burma: Timelessness in a Time of Change
The importance of Theravada Buddhism in Burma (Myanmar) is hard to overestimate: No other country boasts such a high proportion of monks to the general population (500,000 monks and 75,000 nuns among 60 million), or such a high proportion of income spent on religion. Buddhism isn’t relegated to times or places of worship; it impregnates everyday life like a lingering, sweet scent of timelessness. The images in this series present the many facets of Buddhist life – in monasteries and in public spaces, among monks and everyday believers.
Southern Africa from the Air: Above the Garden of Life
Garden of Life is a series of serene images – against the backdrop of a near-death experience: On Jan. 2, 2012, as Marc was shooting flamingos in the Etosha Pan, his plane experienced a sudden motor failure. Thanks to the skill and sangfroid of his pilot and friend Jan Friede, Marc and his wife survived a hair-raising crash landing over water. Soon after the trio got back to civilization, they realized they had become the biggest news item in Namibia.
Within a few weeks of returning to New York, the trio decided to “get the band back together” and return to Southern Africa for another round of aerial shoots. To make the reunion complete, the seemingly destroyed plane had been resurrected through a complete repair and restoration. This series draws from both shoots.
Southern African Wildlife & Landscapes
Like all of Marc’s work, this series is driven by introspection and psychology. The decisive moment in these images is defined not so much by what the subject is doing, but by what it triggers in the viewer’s mind. Moments that would be “off” in classical wildlife photography are the most evocative from his perspective.
This series was created in the dead of night at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport. A place of transit, at a time of transition between two days. All stores, restaurants and airline lounges were closed; the great halls empty. A no-man’s land whose only inhabitants were exhausted transit passengers, fast asleep on benches and easy chairs – as if someone had introduced a sedative into the ventilation system. In this cocoon of unreality, boundaries between public space and a private act – sleeping – had blurred. Strangers next to strangers – isolated individuals, alien to each other, enmeshed in collective stasis.
Rio de Janeiro: City of Contrasts
To Marc, Rio de Janeiro is marked, above all, by contrasts. Not only literally, in the sense of bright light and dark shadows – but also metaphorically, in the geographic proximity of people who lead entirely different lives. Many favelas are a few minutes walk, sometimes across the street, from the wealthiest districts. Images of gilded youth on the beaches of Ipanema and Leblon go hand in hand with impressions from the darkest corners of the city’s slums.