Photographer Mihaela Noroc Explores the World's Great Faces in 'The Atlas of Beauty'



When we last spoke with Mihaela Noroc, the intrepid Romanian photographer engaged in a multi-year project to present the world's women in one, massive photographic essay, she was thousands of miles into the first of her multiple circumnavigations. Now, two years, thousands of images and several hundred thousand miles later, Noroc's luminous Atlas of Beauty has just this week been published in book form by Ten Speed, an imprint of Penguin Random House. The 500 lush, direct, soulful images in the volume are accompanied by short dispatches from Noroc explaining some of the circumstances that led to each shot.

Two years ago, in mid-project, Noroc had just wound up a couch surfing stint in Tehran – no easy feat for anyone, except Noroc – and when we reached her again earlier this month, she was again in Tehran, en route to Turkey and then back to her native Bucharest. Noroc is not a coy photographer, she doesn't mess around looking for moments – although of course, in every photographer's work there are moments to be captured. Rather, Noroc takes her subjects straight on, looking them in the eye as they give of themselves to her camera, and thus, to us. It's a tremendous gift, and serves Noroc's global narrative -- meaning, the innate ability Noroc has to open these women's lives for us most intimately, no matter their circumstance, no matter the language, no matter the strictures of the culture in which they find themselves.

"With the woman in Rajasthan [above], I only had a few minutes before her train departed," explains Noroc. "And as you know Rajasthan is a very conservative place, so, even though I could tell that she wanted to be photographed, I was in the position of having to ask permission from her husband. Luckily, I was able to persuade him in the few minutes that I had that it would be a good idea."

Some of the women mourn their circumstance outright, as in the Syrian family above, some celebrate it, some defy it, some tell us their secrets quietly, whispering out unblinkingly over their condition, as the North Korean museum guard does below. Noroc avoids overt political categorization and/or statement, but in its way her book is a subtle, powerful, most political demonstration of quiet female pride, whether it comes to us from a wizened Guatemalan market lady, a luminous young Icelander, or a fierce, ramrod-straight Mongolian. Noroc has the ability to give us the women as women, first, then she quietly allows them to deliver their response to their own cultural and political baggage. This is how the Rajasthani woman, though infinitely constrained, is able to be, with Noroc, also infinitely free.

All of that poetic discretion—mostly in the eyes, but also in the posture, the cast of the hands, the uplifted chin— communicates immediately with us, or at least, it allows us an imagined communication with them. At least for those of us in the nominally-free, developed world, the approach allows us to open the connection between the faces and what we might, or might not, know of the countries and cultures in which these women find themselves. Noroc's work is, also, a narrative of her rapport with the world, as framed by her subjects.

While it might seem, with this many thousand miles gone and a splendid collection between covers, that Noroc might grapple with another project, as she's conceived and as she practices it, the Atlas of Beauty is clearly an open-ended life's work. Noroc is on the road in Romania at this writing, photographing in the villages, and will pause to attend the book's drop dates in Europe and elsewhere over the coming months, but otherwise, it doesn't seem that she'll be letting go of her subjects any time soon. Which is apt, physically and metaphorically, since none of her subjects, the women of the world, will be stopping their lives, why should their chronicler not accompany them?

Noroc is nothing if not a cultural Magellan, with an insatiable thirst to map the next thing, in an attempt to come to grips with the sum of those things. Which is to say, in a few hundred thousand miles, with a few hundred more photographic chartings of the infinite topography the female face, we'll be looking forward to Mihaela Noroc issuing Atlas of Beauty, Vol. II.