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Harley Weir Beauty Papers
Photography Harley Weir

Harley Weir’s uncanny nudes explore beauty in the age of Instagram

The photographer has published her first ever self-portrait series – here, she discusses the otherworldly allure of sex dolls, being enlightened by porn, and why she chose to turn the camera on herself

Harley Weir has been on Instagram for around a decade – but she’s never posted a selfie before now. “I just never wanted people to judge me before they judge my work,” she says, explaining the aversion to sharing photos of herself over the phone from New York, where she’s recovered from jetlag just in time for the start of fashion week. “I’m not necessarily a purist but I wanted my work to speak for itself, and not for my image to speak for itself.” In her new Beauty Papers photobook, however, the two are unavoidably intertwined, as the photographer turns the camera on herself for the first time.

Of course, flicking through a book from one of fashion’s foremost photographers – whose personal work often exists at the borderlines of the sensual and the grotesque – is a far cry from scrolling down your social media feeds. For one, Weir herself is often hidden behind a hyperreal rubber mask, an uncanny second skin, or layers of make-up that achieve a similar effect, smoothing out her features to a Barbie-like sheen. In other images, meanwhile, sex dolls take her place in front of the camera, dead-eyed or dripping with fake tears (the book itself is dedicated to “all the dolls in the world”).

These contrasting images – the real versus the fake, the comic versus the erotic, “pantomime feminine” forms versus “real” bodies with fat rolls and loose tampon strings – are all a part of modern-day beauty, explains Weir. To illustrate the point she sends a quote over text, by the late French philosopher George Batailles: “I believe that truth has only one face: that of a violent contradiction.”

“It’s very confusing,” Weir continues. “Because at once I don’t agree with the oversexualisation, the overbeautification, the artificial elements of current day beauty, but I still follow that trend in a way. If you go on social media a lot, it’s very hard to move away from those wants and desires.” You only have to scroll down Instagram a few minutes, she adds, and you’ll come across hundreds of women (and increasingly men) whose appearances are altered in Photoshop or via cosmetic surgeries – sculpting the homogenised look that Jia Tolentino dubbed “Instagram face” back in 2019, with figures such as Kim Kardashian as the blueprint. Even if you recognise the idealised veneer, it’s hard not to compare yourself against this constant stream of images. 

“Everyone wants to be desired,” says Weir. “So it’s a difficult one: you don’t want to be a part of something that you think is not quite right, yet you don’t want to get left behind. Especially working in the fashion industry, you’re inundated with images of beautiful people all the time. It’s a catch-22.”

Is perfection actually that sexy, though? This question is asked throughout Weir’s latest project, where airbrushed skin takes on an eery quality, and romance is found in upside-down kisses, bodies and faces smeared with glitter and grime. “I think there’s something in the grotesque,” she says, “and something in uniqueness.” Even for her, though, this realisation took time, arriving too late to stop her from removing a red, star-shaped birthmark on her face aged 16. “I thought I was absolute freak. I just wanted to look like everyone else.”

Watching porn was partly responsible for broadening Weir’s conception of what a body could look like, and for shaping her acceptance of her own body. “If you look in the right places for porn, you can see anything,” she says. “It personally made me feel more normal, because I saw all the weird things I thought I was.”

As in Father, the 2019 photo book that she billed as an exploration and worship of the male body, this new photo book takes a similar approach, showing us sides to sexuality that rarely break through to the mainstream. On the flipside, of course, porn can also be misleading, teaching men that women should look and act a certain way – these ideals are also echoed, in the pliant bodies and provocative angles of Weir’s sex doll images, or in her own contorted poses.

Over the past few years, Harley Weir has worked with some of the biggest names in fashion, film, and music. Just last week, Pamela Anderson, Doja Cat, Kyle MacLachlan, and more starred in the campaign she shot for Marc JacobsAW22 Heaven collection. In a crossover with the Beauty Papers publication, Charli XCX posed with kitchen knives sticking out of her back. Taking her turn in front of the lens, though, the photographer jumped in at the deep end.

After several tries at shooting a photo where she hangs upside down, she says: “My eye actually burst, and then I vomited.” Another time, the thick rubber skin-suit she wore gave her a panic attack. Though she’s always been “quite sensitive” toward people’s needs on set, she says that this shed a new light on the physical challenges models face, and made her more grateful. “Even just standing upright, in a pair of extremely painful shoes and really uncomfortable clothes, is actually quite a feat.”

At the same time, switching between the roles of director and model – and delegating many of the actual photographs to assistants, make-up artists, and anyone who could pick up a camera – gave Weir a new sense of freedom. “I didn’t have to feel guilty,” she says. “If you’re a photographer, you’re always asking something of someone, which can feel dirty and sometimes quite grim afterwards. That transaction can feel weird.” Only having to worry about what she was feeling allowed her to push further, and dig deeper into stranger forms of beauty that might otherwise have been inaccessible. “I could be more free,” she says, “without having to worry about hurting someone’s identity. It was just mine that was there to play with.”

Harley Weir Beauty Papers is published by Beauty Papers and distributed by IDEA. Take a closer look in the gallery above.