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Conceptual Beauty Shoot: Hypocrisy of Righteousness

2/17/2017 ISO 1200 Magazine 0 Comments

Being an artist first, photographer second means that I often grow my concepts from a philosophical seed. For this self-promotional project, I wanted to explore the fine line between righteous intentions and hypocrisy. Within each human being lies the fuel for action, desire. Out of desire comes all the good and bad in this world. We are so easily blinded by our self-righteous intentions that we unintentionally step off the righteous path, falling into the pit of hypocrisy where our actions may generate more bad than good.

What sparked this concept is a story by Guru Ram Dass when he decided to become a vegetarian in order to become closer to God. However, an unexpected consequence of him cutting out meat was that it fed his ego and gave him a sense of superiority towards everyone who didn’t abide by a vegetarian diet, believing that his actions were more “holy” than theirs. With this realization, he stopped being a vegetarian. He still ate mostly greens but stopped referring to himself with a label that separated him from others.

So now that I had the concept, we have to actually translate it into visual images. I wanted the images to have commercial appeal, so I chose a medium of photography that is most accessible to the general public, Beauty Advertising. I also wanted to utilize the pop cultural appeal of the beauty shot to spread the message. The juxtaposition of these two themes allowed for the overall idea of hypocrisy to become even clearer. The next step would be to see how this would translate into photography. The answer is best illustrated by our evolving moodboard.


Phase 1

I had been following Ivan Alifan on Instagram for a while and really loved his work. I loved the texture and allure of these paintings. Beauty and Gluttony. However, it’s a bit over-the-top and that’s not really representative of my work. But it was a start. I discussed it extensively with my stylist, Oceana Larsen.

Phase 2

Blake Little’s project called Preservation is absolutely stunning. A fine example of working with food. At this point, I was ready to give up any ideas of a concept and just do something fun. I have a habit of indecision and perusing the internet for inspiration wasn’t helping. I know I wanted to do something with food and beauty, but how could I fit in a deeper concept?

Phase 3

Next, our stylist chimed in with her inspirations. I had told her that I loved the Candy Land theme of Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” music video. And so Oceana sent these tears which really helped us narrow down the idea to a beauty shoot.

Phase 4

As we continued our search, we felt that images like these were a bit too grotesque. That solidified for me that I wanted the work to be refined and beautiful, edging on “plastic” and “unreal”.

Phase 5

With this last batch of tears, the idea really became final. The red pomegranate and dripping juice conveyed exactly the right message. And the high-fashion beauty style of photography would be the perfect juxtaposition.


Picking the crew was a challenge. I had to weigh an onslaught of criteria. We had to choose between several stylists and models. The stylist had to be available for a test day, and have had experience with food and special effects such as dripping blood. We checked in with the makeup artist multiple times as our plans coalesced to make sure that timing of food and makeup would actually work. Models had to send in current digitals of their face and hands to make sure no break-outs or weird hand issues would stunt the shoot. We did have some last minute cancelations and change-ups, but that’s par for the course in any shoot. I felt it was pretty touch-and-go and I didn’t stop feeling nervous until the first shots started coming in.

Stylist: Oceana Larsen

Models: Isabelle Ellingson (Stars Management) & Melissa Ruiz (Scout)

HMUA: Kris Jung

Manicurist: Lila Robles (Rep’d by Aubri Balk.)

Assistant 1: Fedor Polyushko

Assistant 2: Nelson Lau


In order to achieve the results I was looking for, a test day was necessary. Obviously, we needed a test model and it just so happened that Nelson, the new hire, was available and happy to do it. 

The test day was essential to the success of the actual shoot. Our shoot-day schedule was only for two models but honestly, that felt like a lot since we were trying to capture a few different looks with each model. During the test day, we learned a lot of vital information that would ultimately shape our shoot. For example, we discovered that the beet had to show a fresh, leafy stem while the bulb portion was cooked through. That meant that the stem had to be cut off and saved while the bulb was boiled, only to be reconnected by magic later. Also, the roots of the beet looked terrible on camera and had to be cut. Another great lesson was that only watermelon pieces with seeds should be used and the rind should be left on. We also learned how much fake blood looked good and what expressions gave us what we were looking for. Nelson did an amazing job tolerating us!

When everything was finally scheduled and planned out, it was time to shoot! Take a look at our behind-the-scenes video of what the process was like of getting the models ready, getting the food ready, and actually shooting.


The final touch to these photos were the high gloss retouch. This took 2 of us and 1 month to finish. I was super picky and we preserved every pore of the model’s face. I made a time-lapse video of one of the pictures. I talk through what I did so that you can see my thought process and what I did to the image to take it from the raw image to the finished piece. The retouching on this photo took over 6 hours. We predominantly use a frequency separation and dodge-and-burn technique to achieve the realism.


What did we learn from this shoot? Way more than I can recount here. I am not a practiced beauty photographer but it’s fast becoming one of my favorite mediums for conveying artistic concepts. We faced many challenges throughout this project. First, I had to deal with my own indecisiveness regarding the direction of the shoot. Second, we had some model mix-up and had some last minute switch-outs. On shoot day, we had more snafus when the MUA’s car was involved in a hit-and-run. But what doesn’t kill us makes us better photographers, right? Happy Shooting!


This article was originally published on and shared with permission. 

About Thomas Kuoh:

San Francisco Advertising Photographer, Figure Sculptor, Artist, Homebrewer, Husband, Father, Armchair Philosopher/Spiritualist, all around Dilettante, Tinkerer, DIY'er. Let's Get Connected: 

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