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'On Beauty' documentary, opening Friday, questions our cookie-cutter standards

Los Angeles is the capital of cookie-cutter beauty. But a new documentary film opening here Friday is setting out to transform our perceptions.

“On Beauty” showcases the work of New York fashion photographer-turned-activist Rick Guidotti, who traded shooting Cindy Crawford for shooting people with a range of visible genetic conditions such as albinism, Marfan syndrome, Down syndrome and dwarfism.

The half-hour, short-subject documentary profiles Guidotti, who lensed campaigns for Revlon and L’Oreal and magazine covers for Elle, Marie Claire and People before leaving the fashion industry 15 years ago to found the nonprofit organization Positive Exposure, which campaigns for diversity and acceptance. 

“I loved the idea of aesthetic beauty but didn’t understand why there was only one standard,” Guidotti said over breakfast Wednesday in Los Angeles, in town to shoot the Special Olympics and host screenings of the film. “One day, I saw this extraordinary woman with albinism waiting for the bus. I started researching the condition and it was like a punch in the stomach. All the images had this creep factor, like the circus…. I started getting more and more angry and passionate to use what I knew how to do to show people something different.”

He teamed with the National Organization of Albinism and Hypopigmentation on a photo essay published in Life magazine in 1998 featuring young women with albinism smiling out from under the headline, “Redefining Beauty.” That groundbreaking project led other groups to seek him out, and he hasn’t stopped working since.

With his organization, he is dedicated to challenging the media’s standard of beauty and the dehumanizing way medical textbooks portray people with genetic conditions with black bars over their eyes. “How are you going to study a disease or diagnosis when all you see is the disease or diagnosis?” he says. “You have to see humanity.”

He travels the world presenting his images at medical conferences, in exhibitions and to student, parent and teacher groups, all while taking photos on the spot of thousands of willing subjects, with his characteristic infectious enthusiasm.

“I’ve never photographed a genetic disease in my life, I’ve only photographed beauty,” Guidotti says. “It’s not our beauty, it’s your beauty. Let’s find it, let’s get it, let’s show it, let’s explode that!”

Directed by the Emmy-nominated filmmaker Joanna Rudnick, “On Beauty” focuses on several of Guidotti’s photo subjects. Sarah Kanney left public school for home school in eighth grade because she was bullied so badly for the Sturge-Weber birthmark on her face. “People stare,” she says, explaining how she looked down to avoid the never-ending gaze. “Am I really that different that you have to stare?” But in Guidotti’s images, she not only radiates humor and light, she sees herself as beautiful. Where would Kanney like to see her face next? She holds up a cover of Cosmopolitan magazine. “I started to really accept myself when I met Rick,” she says in the film.

Another subject, Jayne Waithera, lives in East Africa, where people with albinism are called demons, discriminated against and sometimes killed for their body parts, thought to have magical powers. “I came across Rick and Positive Exposure … the photos I saw, I thought, wow, there are people in the world with albinism who are actually smiling,” she says.

In another poignant moment in the film, mother Jenny Howe speaks about seeing Guidotti’s images of her son, Deacon, who has a genetic condition called Chromosome 18 Ring. “Rick took pictures of him the way I saw him, not the way everyone else saw him, but the way I saw him. And it was the first time I had someone tell me how beautiful he was.”

“Everyone has that key,” says Guidotti, who is also working on a book. “Sometimes it’s not so obvious, but it’s there and you find it. I shoot very informal and energetic, with lots of laughing. That’s how I shot Cindy Crawford too.”

From Los Angeles, Guidotti heads to Salt Lake City and Orlando, Fla., for conferences, then to New York City, where the film opens July 31, then Washington, D.C., where the film will screen at the U.S. State Department.

“The ultimate goal is to see someone with a difference and not see that difference,” he says.

“On Beauty” opens Friday at  Laemmle’s Royal Theatre, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. The film will screen daily at noon through Thursday. Rick Guidotti will attend the premiere screening participate in a Q&A. He and the film’s director Joanna Rudnick will attend the screening on Sunday and participate in a Q&A.

booth.moore@latimes.com

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