Ines Alpha turns Instagram and Snapchat filters into pieces of fine art. Iridescent flowers bloom out of people’s heads, sequins rest over glossy skin, faces are etched in delicate lines of gold, and fins grow out of flesh.
Alpha also collaborates with models, artists and fashion directors to create what she calls the “make-up of the future”. Her work plays with augmented reality (AR), and often enhances the make-up people are already wearing in real life – adding sequinned eyebrows for an extra layer of glamour above bold purple eyeshadow, for instance.
The 34-year-old Parisian was originally an art director for advertising campaigns, specialising in luxury, fashion and beauty. But she has a background in fine art, and became increasingly drawn to playing with three-dimensional effects. “I started adding digital elements to photographs, uniting two of my favourite things in this world – 3D and make-up,” she says. “I first trained on photographs by beauty photographers that I liked, then the next step was to add 3D make-up on a video. I found that I was accidentally creating make-up from the future.”
When Snapchat opened up its AR software in December 2017, allowing people to make their own filters, Alpha become one of its official lens creators. She also successfully applied for access to Instagram’s Spark AR Studio software, which allows other people on the app to “try on” some of her filters. Her work draws inspiration from science fiction, cyborgs, drag queens and the natural world. “I am obsessed with sea creatures, especially nudibranchs – soft-bodied, marine molluscs that have extraordinary, clashing colours,” she says.
Critics of social media filters have said that they can lead to “selfie dysmorphia”, where people aspire to look like their enhanced digital image with flawless skin and huge eyes. A 2017 survey from American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery found that 55 per cent of surgeons reported seeing patients who asked for surgery to look better in selfies.
But Alpha says her filters are about giving people the opportunity to play with different versions of beauty, rebelling against the idea that everyone should aspire to look a certain way. “I hope that my work helps people have a more open-minded attitude,” she says. “You can experiment with filters and even if people think you look weird, you are expressing yourself. It’s so important for people to feel like they can be different.”
She believes that people are getting increasingly concerned with appearance because of social media, but hopes her work will help act as a counterpoint. “I’m not into the contouring, make-yourself-perfect thing,” Alpha says. “People have always been fascinated by appearance, and it is getting more and more important – your face is the first thing you see on social media, it’s like your brand. I want to have fun with beauty and play with what people are wearing on their face. It’s about freedom and expanding the possibilities.”
Recently Alpha worked with Nike to create AR masks for the 20th anniversary of the Air Max Plus TN trainer. She collaborated with other artists to create a “digital mirror”. People stood in front of a screen, where their faces were reflected back at them, and then they could try on different masks on their face and make videos of themselves. “Brands are crazy about filters because they’re new and exciting,” she says. “Everyone wants a piece of the action, to be part of this new digital and cultural movement. People are really excited about anything interactive.”
In April 2019, Instagram joined Snapchat and opened its filter creation software to everyone. Alpha believes that we will see an explosion in new filters very soon, with artists, developers and brands creating their own AR filters for people to try on. There are also exhibitions springing up about filters – including the Face-Up display at London’s Tate Modern, Mask Off in Berlin, and Homoinstagrammus in Paris.
“People are already experimenting with augmented reality to create a version of their own beauty,” Alpha says. She says she would wear her filters in real life if she could. “It is hard to imagine digital make-up in the streets, but as people are spending more time with their digital second self, augmented reality make-up seems as real and serious as the internet.”
She points to efforts to make AR glasses and contact lenses, that could bring digital make-up to the real world. “One day, we will be able to see everything in AR.”