Visual Arts

Unnatural Beauty

Photographer Michel Sarda began his career as an architect in Paris. He moved to Phoenix in 1984 after attending the New York Institute of Photography, where his artistic focus shifted from towering edifices to the architecture of the human form. After nearly two decades of capturing graceful bodies and dancers in motion, Sarda decided to explore methods of radically transforming the classical female nude.

The resulting images are featured in "Nudes & Roses," a photography exhibition at the West Valley Art Museum. Sarda opted to include a rotating display of additional works from John McAlister, Delmar Boni, and Cristiana Cole. The current — and final — guest artist is Paolo Soleri, the mastermind behind Arizona's eco-friendly Arcosanti community.

Sarda took a huge risk by incorporating digital manipulation into his work. One of the difficulties of judging photography is that anyone with a good-quality camera and a working knowledge of basic techniques can take a decent photograph. That difficulty is compounded when digital imaging software is involved. Products like Adobe's Photoshop and Illustrator have made it easy for college students and grandmothers alike to transform a simple picture into what could be considered a work of art.

Luckily for Sarda, the risk paid off. Take, for example, his Untitled 02. It's a small portrait, barely six inches high, depicting a lovely young woman with dark, flowing hair and alabaster white skin. Her naked back is exposed to the camera, and her swanlike neck is turned just slightly so that we can see the delicate features of her profile. It's a graceful, charming piece.

The portrait hangs in an unassuming mahogany frame, placed under another small image like a neat row of family photos on the parlor wall of an old country manor. High contrast and a digital manipulation technique that creates a scratchboard texture lend to the authenticity of the image. When viewed at a distance, the diagonal scratches covering the giclée print merge together to mimic the look of an old, weathered tintype. Here, Sarda evokes the charm and elegance of the Victorian era using modern techniques. Bravo!

Sarda's Balance of Ten relies more on conventional photographic aesthetics. The line of the body runs from top left to bottom right, creating a natural diagonal path for the eye to traverse. The figure is contorted in an unusual body position, the bony ridges of the model's shoulder blades jutting backward as muscles strain to hold the pose. Her head is cropped, leaving only the body to focus on. This woman is strong, yet flexible. She is graceful, but also resilient.

It's a powerful statement about the female body.

The notion of "mapping" the female body becomes brilliantly clear through the innovative use of mock-infrared filters and manipulations that simulate a topographical map in his Mystery Woman series. Digital manipulation also helps Sarda achieve a wider range of hues in his flower photographs, which otherwise might seem bland when positioned together with the stark, modern nudes. But digitally enhanced pictures aren't always successful. Print lines are clearly visible in several of Sarda's nudes, leaving me to wonder whether that was an intentional choice or a faulty inkjet.

Soleri's nude studies are energetic and wild, with broad, sweeping strokes. The female bodies are exaggerated, with full breasts, tiny waists and elongated torsos. The color palette is limited to earth tones — browns, earthy greens and ocean blues — an indication that he views women as creators of life; as Mother Earth embodied. Soleri shows a softer side of women, as mother and partner, while Sarda keeps his women at a distance.

In Veronica, Soleri depicts a woman reclining on her stomach, her hair tucked in a casual upsweep. In a way, the piece reads like an architectural landscape. The diagonal line of her body causes my eye to follow the map of the woman's curves, from the broad shoulders down past the large, lumpy buttocks to the strong muscles of her calves. Green and yellow waxes coalesce at her midsection, providing another diagonal break for the eye. It's a soft, feminine piece reminiscent of Matisse's Blue Nudes. This isn't about capturing life exactly as the eye sees it. The body is distorted. The charcoal strokes are choppy.

It's the kind of piece that makes me feel better about my wide hips and chunky thighs.

Ultimately, Sarda and Soleri capture the essences of the women they depict. Soleri's energetic drawings map women's curves with the eye of an artist and the careful attention of an architect. Sarda focuses on architectural details like line and form, while using digital transformation to evoke emotion through vibrant colors and textures. Not all of the images are aesthetically perfect. Sarda's experimental techniques led to printing issues, and Soleri's sketches are raw and unrefined. But that's what makes them so accurate in describing women.

We may be slightly imperfect, but we're still beautiful.

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Wynter Holden
Contact: Wynter Holden