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Hannah Altman’s “How To”
Courtesy of Hannah Altman

Why this artist is setting fire to the naked female form

Using extreme YouTube beauty tutorials as a jump off point, photographer Hannah Altman shows us the reality of impossible standards of female beauty

On the heels of her evocative photo series on tumblr, “And Everything Nice”, going viral – a piece that exposes society’s unrealistic expectations on females even in states of affliction, Hannah Altman strikes once again with “How To”. A multi-media installation that further explores the theme of female body shaming, the artist in collaboration with fellow artists Katie Krulock and Sadie Shoaf, juxtaposes mutilation with piercing irony – using references from the past as well as the present, Altman seems to be waving her finger in disapproval at our collective ignorance of the female condition. Just 20-years-old, Altman represents a slew of emerging female artists unafraid to assume a feminist viewpoint in her work, challenging the boundaries of societal ideologies with their bold, unapologetic statements. We sat down with Altman to discuss her latest project, how we can combat unattainable standards of beauty, and how she hopes young girls will react to her work.

Can you break down the various layers of the multi-media art installation, “How To”?

Hannah Altman: The installation was created in a multi-level studio/apartment space. The bottom level of the space was filled with Sadie’s painting and incredible sculptures of the female body. Audio of 50s and 60s cosmetics commercials played throughout the bottom level. In small groups, people were then allowed to the upstairs portion of the installation.

The first thing the viewer saw when they walked upstairs was 15 large prints of the same image displayed on a clothesline that led down a corridor. Both sides of the hallway had a different image. One image was a woman’s body with her legs spread open. The other two maternal figures – one middle aged and one older, sitting on a couch wearing all white.

As the viewer continued to walk down the hallway, the prints had more severe burns. The body image started burning at the vagina, and the maternal women started burning at the womb. The bodies of the women start to deform and dissolve. The final prints at the end of the hallway were little more than burnt edges.

Upstairs also had two rooms part of the installation. The first section was an apartment filled with performance artists watching other girls’ (including mine, Katie’s, and Sadie’s) taped reactions to extreme “how to” tutorial videos on YouTube – these were filmed by Katie and me. The other room was filled with photographs by both of us as well.

“Being aware is a crucial first step to moving away from unrealistic standards of beauty. If something about your environment doesn’t seem right to you, challenge it” – Hannah Altman

What is the significance of fire in this installation?

Hannah Altman: The idea behind the usage of fire was to visualise the damaging effects of being a woman in a society that places high importance on the aesthetic of the female body and behaviour.

Can you elaborate on the collaborative process with Katie Krulock and Sadie Shoaf?

Hannah Altman: Katie and Sadie are both fantastic artists. Sadie and her partner Andrew McIntyre rented out Runaway Studios as well as the apartment that we turned into the installation. The landlord was planning on turning the space into condos, so this was one of the last big shows that took place in the now defunct venue. Working with these wonderful people was so satisfying. The four of us did everything, from lighting and set up to tear down. It was so nourishing and inspiring to build something out of nothing. Katie and Sadie are both phenomenal artists and this show would not have been possible without their brilliance.

Was there a specific source of inspiration for your vision of the project?

Hannah Altman: We were all really interested in the extreme “How To” tutorial videos on YouTube. We watched endless videos – ‘how to contour your face so it looks completely different’, ‘how to fake abs’, ‘how to look skinny in photos’. They really hit a nerve with us and we felt there was something so flawed about the millions of views they had.

What role does affliction play in your work?

Hannah Altman: That’s actually something I’ve never thought about before – a big one, essentially. A lot of my work is a very raw and manic reaction to varying facets of society that I am exposed to. Being honest and open as an artist is so crucial to effectively convey the message in your medium, so I try not to compress my feelings. I am constantly reminding myself that allowing myself to analyse my emotions conveys strength.

How do we move away from unrealistic standards of beauty?

Hannah Altman: Being aware is a crucial first step to moving away from unrealistic standards of beauty. If something about your environment doesn’t seem right to you, challenge it. Be aware of your own choices as well as others. If you don’t want to shave your legs, don’t. But if your best friend likes hers shaved, respecting a women’s ability to choose how she looks is just as important.

What reaction are you trying to elicit from your male audience?

Hannah Altman: I’d like male viewers to feel able and willing to be involved in feminism. Males should understand that while gender inequality is not their struggle, they have a say in supporting the advancement of equality.

When young girls examine your work, what do you hope their takeaway will be?

Hannah Altman: I hope the work makes them more aware of the way they view their bodies, and that they are inspired to create their own art because of it. I am always so deeply humbled when I am approached by a young girl who wants to recreate my work, or wants to show me art they’ve made that flow along the same vein as mine. Because the artwork of young girls is almost never taken seriously, it’s crucial to create a network of positive enforcement. If feminism is an idea girls hear a lot growing up, it becomes a part of them.

“Males should understand that while gender inequality is not their struggle, they have a say in supporting the advancement of equality” – Hannah Altman

Who are some contemporary artists you admire?

Hannah Altman: I recently had a wonderful conversation with an artist named Samantha Conlon, who created the series “Daughters,” in which she photographs the raw power of girlhood. Cristina Hoch is also a fantastic photographer who makes eccentric and beautiful portraits of her younger sister, among others.

Where do you see yourself as an artist in the next five years?

Hannah Altman: I can’t see myself continuing down any other path than the one I am already so dedicated to. As long as I am making, talking about, and experiencing art, I am happy. I am excited for my work to evolve as my awareness does.

To see more of Altman’s work, click here