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Why Are We Fascinated with Imperfection?


Guest Post from Image Source
By John O’Reilly

From the Gap Toothed Model, to highly designed leftover food products to Roland Barthes’ classic photo essay on the ‘punctum’,  looking ‘bad’ is looking good. It seems we are fascinated by the ‘imperfect’ or at last what’s socially judged as imperfect. From the fabricated  ‘oops!’ of lens flare, to eruptions against photo-shopping women in fashion, to gap-toothed models, the media is wrestling with the images of ‘imperfection’

Back in the 1980s Italian writer Umberto Eco, best known for penning The Name of the Rose, explored the eccentrically inventive visual culture of theme parks and wax museums. The highlight of this journey was a visit to the Palace of Living Arts in Buena Park, Los Angeles – “when it comes to spiritual emotions nothing can equal what you will feel”. The Palace reproduced three dimensional, life-size versions of classic artworks, so you can see for example Leonardo painting the portrait of the Mona Lisa. It’s obviously improved by 3D.  What’s more, and the brilliant, transformative logic of this begins to make my head hurt - an ‘original’ painting was on display beside the 3D version. It wasn’t a perfect reproduction print, but something painted by a sidewalk artist, flawed, so it felt more ‘real’, more ‘authentic’.

But the highlight of the tour for Eco is a reproduction of the Venus de Milo as she would have been around 200BC, leaning against a column. “I say ‘leaning’,” Eco writes, “and in fact this polychrome unfortunate has arms.” This is an improved, more authentic version of the Venus De Milo. Jeez, who really wants to see armless statues?

I was reminded of Eco’s examination of originals and copies, of perfect and imperfect copies, when reading Venessa Wong’s feature for Bloomberg Businessweek, “Food Marketing in 2014 Will Be Ugly“. Wong highlights some features from JWT’s 2014 Trends Report, which suggests that this year will be ‘proudly imperfect’, citing for example brands crowdsourcing ‘real people models’.

But Wong points out the limitations of the Report and the dizzying logic of creating imperfection. She writes that when it comes to food, the report “suggests merely that next year we’ll see more food that looks imperfect. Take the turkey in Oscar Mayer’s Carving Board line of sliced meat. It’s cut thick and uneven to look like home-cooked leftovers, but as JWT explains, that requires a process that took the company two years to develop. The so-called imperfection of the product is as deliberate as it is false. Packaging actual leftover meat – or any product with more serious flaws, for that matter – likely wouldn’t be as appetizing to consumers.” It’s a kind of reverse engineered imperfection.

Man holding fresh food in market
Antonia Saba / Cultura RM

Though ‘real’ leftovers have had a renaissance over the last decade among foodies, Tripe (the stomach of an animal) used to be part of the staple diet of poorer cultures, my father would eat tripe and onions once a week while my stomach remained hypnotised, undecided whether to eject it’s own contents or remain in frozen admiration at the eating of this rubbery matter. Yet Vanessa Wong has a serious point about the wasteful energy going into make something seem ‘imperfect’.

Nevertheless there’s been a consensus among media mavens that the aesthetic/idea of imperfection is appealing to people seeking a little bit of ‘grit’ in any increasingly smoothed-over digital culture, most obviously in the various campaigns around photo-shopping (read a nuanced piece by Peggy Drexler on the recent American Eagle campaign,) and the desire to see women in advertising who reflect a vaguely realistic body-type.

And while citizens have always had a richer psychological life than the behaviourists/data boffins in the agency have supposed, perceived imperfection in real-life has human consequences that aren’t resolved, don’t have happy endings, can’t be packaged-up as ‘proudly imperfect’. A recent campaign for Dermablend Professional cosmetics, a product used by people with skin conditions to help them  get on with their life, the ad makes the viewer look at the judgements and values we work with. Exploitative? Honest?

Fashion, since at least grunge and Martin Margiela’s ‘unfinished’ clothes (deconstructivism) of the 90s, has a sweet spot for the ‘imperfect’, in that elegantly shot fashiony kind of way, where imperfection feels a little bit knowing, in quotation marks.


Back in 2010, ‘imperfection’ was embodied in the figure of the gap-toothed model, such as Georgia Jagger and teenage supermodel Linsey Wixson, who’s imperfect teeth expressed authenticity – actually it was really just the gap, the space between the teeth. If graphic designers could kern teeth they would look like Linsey Wixson’s.

Back in the 1970s Lauren Hutton was told by model agencies she would never make it as a model. In an interview with Derek Blasberg at Harper’s Bazaar, Hutton said about her gap-tooth, “ It’s becoming quite fashionable now, isn’t it? Forty-five years later.” Blasberg continues, “At first, she tried using morticians’ wax to cover the gap, cutting a line in the middle of it. Then she used a cap, which she would often swallow, laugh out, or misplace.

‘Revlon wanted me to use it all the time, and then the construction workers would yell at me in the street, Hey, Lauren, why did you fill in your space? We don’t like you anymore!’ she says. ‘So I would turn and give them a great big grin and they would cheer.’”

Learn more about our fascination with the imperfect on the Image Source blog.


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