After 20 years in the industry, photographer Elise Dumontet questions the real meaning of beauty.

Having cemented her place in the beauty photography industry, Elise explores the definition of beautiful.

Words Jyni Ong at It’s Nice That

Elise Dumontet had a rather untraditional route to becoming a photographer. She never studied the medium, or a creative subject for that matter. Instead, she felt the need to do something practical, and enrolled in catering school to train as a chef. Though it was miles away from photography, she tells us, “I always knew I wanted to be an artist,” and in some way, cooking provided the creative foundation for this. After all, cooking is just as much a form of art.

After years of working in catering in London, Elise, who is originally from France, eventually found a job in a photography studio. It was here that she “fell in love with the medium” and “finally found a way of expressing [her]self.” For eight years she worked as an assistant for a number of fashion photographers, honing her craft along the way and developing a unique aesthetic, greatly admired today. She found a passion for beauty editorial photography which soon became her niche in the medium, explaining, “I fell in love,” when first encountering this sub-genre.

Currently globally represented by AtTrayler, Elise’s extensive list of clients include the likes of Vogue, L’Oreal, Clinique, Space NK, Penguin, Harpers Collins and Sunday Times Style; just to name a few. In her latest series, Hues, she captures the beauty of people with albinism, vitiligo, piebaldism and benign hypo-pigmentation. The genetic conditions affect the production of melanin, causing a lack of pigmentation on the skin. The photographer captured her subjects with delicate subtlety, paying particular attention to lighting which compliments the models’ fair complexions.

On the series and her work in general, she says: “I often shoot personal projects with little to no idea of how things are going to turn out. I know who I’m going to shoot but what happens with my models is always down to how we interact and how the lights are going to bounce off their skin.” For Hues, these elements were even more unknown. “Their paleness and the reaction to the flash was a mystery,” Elise adds. “So I just let them be.” Working patiently with the models’ natural responses to the photography studio, she learnt just how sensitive the lights were to those with a pigmentation issue.

As the models’ eyesight gradually became accustomed to the bright lights of the studio, the photographer and models got to know each other, talking and laughing along the way. “It all became magical,” Elise says of the experience, “I somehow couldn’t take my eyes off of them. I felt they needed protection at first but they don’t. All I see now is pure beauty and strength.”

Having spent the best part of the last 20 years shooting advertising beauty campaigns, Elise was no stranger to photographing beautiful women. And after so many years capturing the conventionally attractive, in the past few years, she’s explored the mainstream definition of beauty, turning her lens on a different kind of beauty often discredited in the norm. “I want to help people find their inner beauty,” she says on the matter, tapping into the subject’s personality in turn. “Not just showing what’s obvious but bringing them a sense of empowerment.”

With this conscious shift in representation, Elise stepped away from the overly retouched images of glossy magazines and centred her practice on the knowledge that “beauty is about knowing and accepting who you are, and I’m hoping my pictures show that.” Fundamentally, people are the heart of her photography and are an unending fountain of inspiration for her, even more so given recent times.

During lockdown, Elise spent the period of isolation on her own, going without physical contact for weeks. Although it was complicated on one hand, on the other, it made her “fall in love with people even more.” In an epiphany of sorts, she realised “all those hang-ups and stigmas we all have about our body suddenly don’t matter any more. The masks have fallen down. We wear less makeup, dress more casually.” And for Elise, “we no longer care about the weight that society imposes on us and the way we should look.”

In other work, Elise has just finished filming for a project titled World Women Hour. Depicting 60 women and in turn 60 stories in one-minute segments, the film documents myriad women from a variety of backgrounds sharing tales from their life and how they’ve been impacted by education. She is also currently working on a project with Unbound, collaborating with LGBTQ+ people which will be released at the end of October 2020.

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