Beauty Papers

Dick Page and James Gibbs

Dick Page and James Gibbs talk to Beauty Papers about literature, aesthetics and artifice.

Make-up artist Dick Page and writer James Gibbs live together in New York with their dog Raggio. The couple have collaborated on many a shoot together, including the iconic Marc Jacobs campaign photographed by their long-term friend Juergen Teller in 2010 and their favourite, The Soldier’s Wife for Interview magazine. This time, they joined forces for our Plastic Issue. We catch up with Dick and James in the thick of Paris fashion week.

Beauty Papers: Dick, in your statement for the Plastic Issue shoot, you said: “Beautiful brash fakery is more honest than just slithering out of the shower and putting on lip balm.” Why do you think there’s more truth in not wanting to look natural? Why is fakery less deceiving for you? James, do you agree that artifice is more honest than natural? What’s your take?

Dick Page: All our decisions about how we present ourselves, our clothes, hair and make-up, are just that: decisions. I find the idea of agency interesting, so doing everything to your face is as valid and “honest” as doing nothing, maybe not more so, but conscious choices in your looks are very telling. Finding the right pair of jeans and a good t-shirt may be harder than throwing on a mad frock and painting your face.
James Gibbs: To take it back to the shoot, Gina and Eden are doing a lot here, but it isn’t hiding, and it isn’t deception. Those are the words that people might use when they want to code this as an ethical choice rather than an aesthetic choice. So I like the freedom of just saying that we can play, within whatever zones we’re comfortable. To go back to my roots, which are architecture originally, I would just want to remember that ‘plastic’ originally meant that which could be transformed. Or even better: that which is capable of responding to its environment. When I was in school in architecture we were suffering under this extended macho-modernism hangover, where anything remotely decorative or playful was forbidden. It was awful. And boring.


 When I was in school in architecture we were suffering under this extended macho-modernism hangover, where anything remotely decorative or playful was forbidden. It was awful. – James Gibbs


Dick, in the late 70s you were in a theatre group and did everything from costumes to sets and make-up. Would you say that creating for theatre injected your make-up artistry with a sense of drama? In what way do you think it informed your craft? And do you find it ironic that you’re sometimes described as the king of no-make-up make-up seeing as you worked for stage?

DP: Not really. I think it’s more difficult to appear naturally beautiful than it is to do a bit of good slap. My work is temporary and I love that about it. It washes off and there’s no physical attachment to it, which I find very freeing. All theatre, fashion photography and film requires that we create various illusions and they endure as recorded but, they’re fleeting, temporary conditions.

James, you’re currently working on a novel and you’re a dramaturg; I often wondered how different fiction styles affect/inform each other. For your work you read the work of different playwrights, how does that affect the way you edit and structure a novel?

JG: My work as a dramaturg and writer for the theatre is basically all with The Builders Association, which is a pioneer of “devised” theatre, so it isn’t the German historical “dramaturgy” of reading about every version of a play that’s ever been done from 1678 on. It’s more about tracking an idea through the work that the group does, and making sure that the written and spoken part of that work is carrying the weight it needs to carry. And the novel I’m writing is my first, so maybe I’ll get back to you in another ten years with my wisdom about novel structure? Maybe. I will say this about these two types of creative work: one is intensely, deeply collaborative and social, and the other can only happen in a quiet place of total panic-inducing self-reflection. So they’re complementary in that I’m still a borderline functional person.


My work is temporary and I love that about it. It washes off and there’s no physical attachment to it, which I find very freeing – Dick Page


Dick, what’s the most crucial aspect of make-up that appeals to you? How do you approach a face? Do you have an ideal that you want to project on someone’s face, or does the face – and the personality of its owner – dictate a certain aesthetic on you?

DP: Make-up needs context. It’s just a small part of telling a story. So even if I have some direction beforehand from a designer or photographer, nothing can really be decided until the moment, and even then, a change in the casting, clothes, hair or lighting may send you off in another direction. That’s the important part of collaboration, to be open and flexible in your approach and method. You may have woken up sweating about the concept for a shoot only to realise that your understanding of the theme is wildly different to others on set and you have to meet them from a fresh perspective. It’s a good way to work, to build an idea together.

Since the 90s, you’ve collaborated on iconic shoots, and worked on numerous runways, so you’ve witnessed years of change in attitudes, trends and ideals. What are your observations about the current state of things in make-up? Is there an idea/attitude that you can’t stand at the moment, or is there a positive change that you’ve observed that you appreciate or been part of? 

DP: I’m fiercely resistant to the current obsession with perfection and flawlessness. I don’t like static, inflexible beauty. I’ve often said that the absence of flaws does not automatically result in beauty. I like animation and expression. I want to have a sense of the person in their body, how they relate to the world they’re in, whether it’s real or imagined. Like I said, my medium is impermanent, and I like to use that to help create something “real” even if it’s extremely artificial in appearance.

James, where do you get your literary inspiration?

JG: From all over the place. I’m lucky to still be a student and participant with The Writers Studio in New York and the programme emphasises craft and the constant study of other writers, including a huge amount of contemporary work. I could easily have gotten stuck worshipping my own particular lights in the canon (Baldwin, Mann, Bowles). I think my love of literature comes partly from the experience of looking for gay experiences, even coded ones, in the library. So continuing to be a student has widened my inspirations, especially to women writers that I didn’t seek out in that formative period – Lucia Berlin, Lydia Davis. I could happily spend the rest of my life looking at Alice Munro’s short stories.

How about you, Dick? Where do you get your visual inspiration? 

DP: All over the place. I’ll go hunting for clues sometimes, but more often than not they turn up uninvited.

What’s your favourite collaboration to date and why?

DP: We shot a story for Interview magazine yonks ago, called “The Soldier’s Wife”, which was composed almost like storybook, with all the action taking place inside the same frame. I loved that.
JG: …and it was basically the first thing we ever did together. And I loved it too. We should do something like that again! Why haven’t we?

Dick, you said that make-up is ephemeral and temporary, and James, you’re a writer, so in stark contrast to Dick’s art, with words, once they’re out there, it’s more permanent, so you must have a different approach to your craft, perhaps there’s more self-editing involved. How do you think this contrast informs the way you work together when you collaborate on a certain project? 

DP: I think I covered this earlier, but the temporary nature of make-up frees me up to make mistakes, tweak ideas and create something unique to each situation. Even if I did the same make-up everyday for a month it would always look different because of all the elements it relies on to exist in the first place. The face, the clothes, the hair, the light and the medium it’s being recorded in. I don’t know if our different perspectives consciously affect how we work together, but we agree more often than not.
JG: Well, in my work in the theatre one of the great things is that you can write something, hear it, and then change it. You can discuss it with the director and the performer, and get their take on it too, and find what’s working and what isn’t. I actually think this is good practice for any kind of creative work. You do what you do, you get the help you have available to you, and then you let it out into the world. Rinse. Repeat.

What is your idea of beauty?

JG: I love the classical idea of beauty, that it exists, we can name it, know it, and approach it, if never quite reach it. But I don’t believe it. It’s like the idea of “human rights”. Do we really believe that they exist out there in some Platonic way, like the idea of a sphere? Or is believing in them a wonderful, convenient fiction that makes life better on this planet here and now? I tend to think the latter, but either way, I’m in. Beauty? Check. Let’s work for that. Let’s all work for it, even if we don’t agree on what it means. Even if, in fact, we really disagree about what it means. Even if you think my idea of beauty is depraved. Human rights? Definitely. Sign me up for that too. Just to be safe.
DP: Beauty is a sneaky thing, indefinable and fluid. You’ll go looking for it and it’s been hiding in a film you haven’t seen or a book you haven’t read. It was sitting behind you on the train last week or it’s on its way to you in the mail. Beauty doesn’t exist until you name it. It’s like the devil.

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