Words by Anthony Thomas
“People have said to me that I approach my work from a feminist point of view, and I’m seeing that more and more, but I haven’t set out to do that,” a gentle voice tells me over the phone. I’m speaking with Melbourne-based creative, Phebe Schmidt. “I just explore society’s obsession with generic beauty that conform to gender, social and cultural ideals.”
Trained in commercial photography at RMIT, the images Phebe constructs seek emotional appeal through clever colour decisions and precise composition. Though it is important to make a clear distinction between these images and the advertisements that inspire them – their motives share no commonalities.
Where an advertisement attempts to coerce you out of financial capital, Phebe’s images simply demand your attention. They invite the viewer to partake in a critical dialogue on the normative gender identities programmed into the collective psyche by mass media’s desire for manufactured perfection.
This artificial reality and the concept of plasticity form the conceptual foundations of Phebe’s visual messages. Plasticity is an abstract idea with theoretical application across a breadth of fields, spanning physics, psychology and cultural studies, that describes the degree an object can be altered into varying states and forms. It isn’t difficult to see how this applies to Phebe’s area of interest.
The preoccupation with perfection within the media industry, particularly amongst those involved in fashion and advertising, has produced unrealistic societal expectations when it comes to gender. Editors and designers possess the ability to control and modify every element of their cultural output, forcing viewers to perceive content through a domineering and prescriptive lens.
I can’t help but think of a song by gender activist and performer, Peaches, where she proclaims, “Every little defect gets respect.” It begs the question, which defects are those exactly? I ask Phebe her thoughts. “When I explore the generic beauty ideal, I’m not coming from the point of view that respects these defects, it’s more about making the viewer feel uncomfortable and reflect on what lies beneath this lack of defects.”
Given her desire to disrupt the social “equilibrium”, I’m curious to hear Phebe’s thoughts on the blatant narcissism and materiality on perpetual exhibition via the Internet. “If anything social media has made people strive for it more. The obsession with likes and followers, feels regressive and counterproductive.” A frightening truth only serving as reinforcement for Phebe’s message Phebe.
The aesthetic execution of these musings on gender conventions and cultural expectation in Phebe’s work is only logical. By leveraging the very style she is critiquing, an initial feeling of familiarity is created, encouraging viewers to engage. Once you are captive, that ideated perfection deteriorates as the odd posing of the subject or unorthodox use of props surfaces. All the while unnervingly pleasant colour palettes massage your eyeballs, making it harder and harder to look away.
“I am obsessed with the colours from Star Trek, especially the original series. I also love bright colour and pastels because they support that theory of crafting unnatural perceptions and taking it to another level.”
Phebe’s body of work prominently features sexually implicit posing, something hard to avoid given the conceptual climate the images are derived in. The poses themselves are not what initially struck me rather the deliberate exclusion of her models faces. A technique typically employed to provoke detachment and objectification. Prior to our conversation, Phebe had told me that encouraging theatrical role-play is another key dimension of her practice. With particular reference to the Palimpsest collaboration with her sister,Audrey, I ask whether the use of a mask was intended to exaggerate the performance of the model.
“I didn’t specifically want that confidence, more than anything I wanted to capture the in-between poses. My favourite is the image where she is in the motion of getting up. However, in that instance, without the mask I don’t think there would have been as much spontaneity.”
It speaks volumes of the female perception of the self. These stereotypical frameworks that women are involuntarily reliant upon when evaluating their physical beauty are alarming. Particularly when they begin to discourage women from fully expressing themselves through their body without the aid of some form of mask. Though Phebe concedes, “people who at first were quite self-conscious tend to warm up after a while. I have my camera tethered to my computer so if they’re feeling self-conscious they can see exactly what’s going on. I’m not going to use anything they aren’t comfortable with.”
Phebe Schmidt’s work is conversational. While the topic may be uncomfortable for some, it is one that needs progressive discussion to be stimulated around it. By appropriating the familiar into the unfamiliar, Phebe has created a powerfully relevant commentary. Of course, it remains to be seen how far off real change actually is there is always the small comfort we can seek in knowing that the groundwork is being laid now.
At the end of the day, it’s not so much about dwelling on the past, we know there is much to be desired, but rather the actions we chose to make moving forward. Because ultimate they determine the society we live in tomorrow.