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Scratch on the Lens

Two photographers are documenting the human body in all its strangeness.

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Bikini season can seem a "Get Out of Jail Free" card for exposing some things best left covered up. Stretch marks, cellulite, varicose veins — in a word, skin: the body's largest organ in all of its imperfect glory. Sometimes it's all too much.

Still, two Richmonders are looking to see more. Work Labs founder Cabell Harris and photographer Karl Steinbrenner are working on a book called "SCAR," a tribute to the remnants of surgical procedures, fraternity brands, self-inflicted injuries and anything else tenacious enough to leave a mark.

Like rings on a tree, a scar reflects the history of its wearer. Many are linked with emotional or physical traumas, but, as Harris says, "Whatever scarred them wasn't good enough to kill them."

Quick to call a skin graft or a front-to-back scoliosis scar "beautiful," Steinbrenner is clearly the man for the job. "What you're doing," he says to Harris, "is exploration of the human condition." Most of the models in "SCAR" are locals, and a few are Harris' and Steinbrenner's friends.

"I've always been interested in scars — because I have one I guess," says Amy Gessel, whose six-inch scar from open-heart surgery will be among those featured in the book. "I think they make people who they are." For Gessel, her scar tells a story of survival. "I know if I didn't have a scar I wouldn't be here."

"We've never done anything like this before," Harris says. Earlier this year, he released "Kiss & Tell," a coffee-table book featuring celebrity lip-prints and the stories behind their smooches. The book was a study of those known to be flawless, but the success of "Kiss & Tell" encouraged Harris to start looking for people with imperfections, and that's where "SCAR" comes in.

In addition to coming up with creative projects like "SCAR," Work Labs is home to ad firm Work Advertising, which serves a diverse clientele and even some of Harris' pet projects, like the on-hiatus Work Beer brew. Over the years, Harris and Steinbrenner have worked together on a number of ad campaigns. "[Advertising] just gets you to understand communication," says Harris.

"SCAR" is backed by production company Blue Q, makers of temporary tattoos and other novelties. The book will be smaller than a DVD and cost less than $10, the kind of thing you'd find next to an updated Kama Sutra at Urban Outfitters. In addition to photography, "SCAR" will include two pages of scar-related factoids, as well as some of the stories visitors have submitted online at www.scarproject.com. Harris intends to maintain the Web site after the book is published so people with scars can continue to share their stories.

Along with "SCAR," Harris and Steinbrenner have two other books under way for Blue Q. "We had a few concepts that they liked," says Harris, and with the two other projects, the team pretty much has the human anatomy covered, from one cheek to another. There's "SPLIT" — channeling Jekyll and Hyde, the book features a pair of images made from the mirrored right and left sides of each subject's face. Moving on (and down), their other project is "CRACK," an exploration of mankind's derrière divides. Lumpy, toned, clothed or not so much, each rear end gets its own two-page spread, with the crevice in question sinking into the book's spine.

So what will these three projects bring to the world? Perhaps deeper insight into the way we see each other, or else just something funny to look at — not even the books' creators are able to say for sure. "We're not trying to make this serious or humorous," Harris says. "You read into it what you will." S

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