All the Colors of Beauty
Marilyn Monroe standing on a subway grate, her white dress billowing around her hips—it’s an iconic Hollywood image. That immortal scene from The Seven Year Itch has inspired countless tributes and parodies over the years.
Artist Tya Alisa Anthony was researching the history of Black media when she came across an old Jet magazine cover featuring Donna Summer re-creating Monroe’s peek-a-boo pose. Anthony’s parents had collected the weekly digest when she was a child, but re-examining back issues revealed a disconnect between the magazine’s eye-catching covers and its articles on Black agency and pride.
The works that comprise Complexion took shape through the digital process. Anthony explains, “Brown Skin Beauties was initially supposed to be a complete layer-over-layer image looking at facial structure similarities.
Superimposing images was Anthony’s way of looking for a pattern in what Jet defined as beauty. She explains, “That piece then inspired Woman as Muse.”
Color, or its absence, is at the core of Complexion. Jet ran black-and-white photos of models over color backgrounds until 1970. Anthony wondered whether she could find some sort of methodology in the use of background colors. She asked herself, “Were certain background colors used for certain skin tones and facial structures? Could I find some sort of hierarchy in the use of background colors?” So she removed them with the Clone Stamp tool. “I then desaturated them,” she continues, explaining that she used Photoshop’s Hue/Saturation settings to achieve a color palette of tones connecting to the natural environment, according to her own aesthetic preference.
“I would ask myself over and over again, ‘What if these models were able to represent an African-inspired identity? How would they have been received by the masses?’” she says. “The markings are a direct reflection of marks used during ritual, ceremony, and traditions of West African cultures.”
THE BIGGER PICTURE
Now based in Denver, Anthony calls Baltimore her hometown, and she grew up traveling the world in a military family. Her father was a hobbyist photographer, and she still remembers going to get film developed with him. A nomadic upbringing also influenced her perceptions and processes. “Residing in so many places over the years allowed me the opportunity to see outside of any single experience, creating a plethora of memories to draw from,” she says.
Commercial photography was a little different from her initial dream of documenting the world's food cultures with a medium-format camera for National Geographic, but Anthony wanted to focus on work that would allow her to raise her daughter.
“I photographed weddings and babies and artists and families and models and celebrities and events and, and, and…. That all became so distant to my personal narrative,” she says. “The truth is, I absolutely loved and adored every single commissioned commercial project, but I still longed for personal meaning. I wanted more connection to who I would become and the purpose of my work.”
To find that connection, Anthony earned a BFA at Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design, where she now works a nine-to-five. As a student, she further honed her photographic talent but expanded into other forms of expression in order to find her voice. By graduation, her career had changed to become centered around art.
A MEANS OF COMMUNICATION
Complexion has been exhibited several times, and reaction has been balanced. “Since the series deals with the topic of colorism, it is hard for all audiences to fully articulate their experience with the work,” she says. “Exhibiting the work has inspired me to take more time with the work and keep considering its presentation as a vehicle of communication.”
Life beyond commercial photography isn’t any less hectic. She’s working on a personal memoir, collaborating with her spouse on a hybrid photography-poetry project, and mentoring her youngest daughter in photography. There are also handmade paper sculptures and an upcoming two-year residency at the Denver art center Redline.
As much as she loved her former career and continues to appreciate amazing models and design (while wishing the fashion world would welcome a wider variety of body types), she’s moved past her commercial photography.
“Commercial photography—do I miss it…ever? Not really. Actually not at all,” she says. “I’d love to photograph Jay-Z and Beyoncé one day for fun, but that’s every photographer’s dream right?”
Complexion will be exhibiting as part of Daughters of the Diaspora at the Western Colorado Center for Visual Arts this December.