January 6, 2009

Images: Commercial and Critical

We all know that photographs and other graphic images are used to sell things. This is nothing new. At the same time, I don' t think that we always pay a lot of attention to the ways that imagery is used, why it is used, and what messages are being sent. Interestingly, a massive amount of information is communicated visually--from billboards to street signs to ads--and I do not think that we are taught to take a critical look at how they are being used. Why is that?

Companies like Costco use images all the time to sell their products, and it makes sense. We are all pretty accustomed to this. For example, take a look at these two images that I found on Costco.com:

Both photographs are pretty run-of-the-mill as far as advertising goes. Nothing too noteworthy, right? The first, an ad for a high definition TV, uses images of two models to display the qualities of the TV image. Standard photographic shoot with models in which the resulting images are then used to sell televisions. The second ad is for a closet organization product. Again, I think many of us have seen this kind of thing before. The photograph was most likely shot by a commercial photographer and supervised by an art director--pay close attention to how perfectly arranged the scene is.

One thing to point out is that both of the above images look "real" and seem, on the surface, to be somewhat plausible. The first looks like a really nice picture that was taken at some family gathering...just two kids having a good time who happen to be well-lit and stylized. It could happen. The second is, in my opinion, just a little less plausible since it looks more like a sculpture or museum than an actual human living space. But maybe that's just me. Overall though, I think many of us can accept it as a somewhat reasonable representation of a closet.

The point here is not to be judgmental. The point is to just look a little more closely in how images are used commercially, as well as how they are produced and disseminated. Something about advertising and commercial photography that fascinates me is their highly stylized nature. Images are made to look close to real, but often stay pretty far from depicting people, places, or products in a way that might be just a little too realistic. Beer ads, which always show happy, smiling, good-looking people, are an excellent example. Trust me, as someone who spent five years as a bartender, most of the Corona, Budweiser, and Coors ads are way off base. But then, showing reality isn't going to sell anything, is it? For instance, showing a realistic closet, instead of the immaculate one above, isn't going to sell the product. So, in a way, advertising is about selling using idealized versions of life to sell products--because it apparently works.

On the other end of the spectrum, photography can be used to not only produce commercial images, but also as a means to analyze that process of commercialization. The work of photographer Brian Ulrich is an excellent example. Using photography, Ulrich takes a sociological/anthropological look at the ways that people experience and participate in our massive economic system. First, take a look at one of his photographs from a "big-box" store:

Above: "Chicago, IL 2003 ," copyright Brian Ulrich.

The above photograph depicts people in the process of shopping, and shows how products are actually displayed and experienced by people--a very different version of reality than that which is seen via advertisements. Unlike ads, this photograph is a little gloomy, a little clinical, and not quite glamorous or perfect. It just looks like one of the many shopping aisles at a place like Costco that we can see all across the US. And there are people who look quite a bit less like models in the photograph. What is striking to me is how structured and organized the setting is--in some ways these stores are like massive museums of products that we leisurely experience.

Now, I have to be clear here: Ulrich's photographs also, in my opinion, represent "a" reality as opposed to some unfiltered truth that has been delivered right to your eyes. Framing, timing, camera and lens choice, have created a version of reality--but one that I would argue is quite a bit less manipulated than the scenes that are fed to us all through advertisements.

Here is Ulrich's statement about his work:
In 2001 citizens were encouraged to take to the malls to boost the U.S. economy through shopping, thereby equating consumerism with patriotism. The Copia project, a direct response to that advice, is a long-term photographic examination of the peculiarities and complexities of the consumer-dominated culture in which we live. Through large scale photographs taken within both the big-box retail stores and the thrift shops that house our recycled goods, Copia explores not only the everyday activities of shopping, but the economic, cultural, social, and political implications of commercialism and the roles we play in self-destruction, over-consumption, and as targets of marketing and advertising. By scrutinizing these rituals and their environments, I hope that viewers will evaluate the increasing complexities of the modern world and their own role within it.

Here is another photograph, this time from what appears to be that red and white bullseye retail store that many of us know so well:

Above: "Granger, IN 2003," copyright Brian Ulrich.

Again, this image depicts a scene that is far from glamorous. And it also shows how highly organized many of these stores are...they are built to manage large flows of people as much as they are built to sell and display products. Compare Ulrich's image with the stylized advertisements that Target is known for such as this one:

Or how about this one, found here, which shows a series of Target ads in Times Square:

The mundane and, well, somewhat boring version of the Target experience that Ulrich's photograph captures is remarkably different from the surreal and highly stylized realities that the Target ads assert.

In one final example, have a look at this photograph, also by Brian Ulrich:

Above: "Chicago, IL 2003," copyright Brian Ulrich.

This image shows a young woman in a grocery store, talking on her cell phone and shopping. The photographer took the photograph from pretty close range. As with the other photographs by Ulrich, this scene is hardly fantastic, surreal, or out of the ordinary. It's one more illustration of the contrast that can be seen between the ways that the world is represented commercially, and the ways that it CAN be represented. Ulrich uses his images, in a way, as starting points for discussion about commercialism, marketing, advertising, and consumption. His work can be found in books, magazines, gallery exhibits, and online. His use of photography is one that turns commercial imagery and culture into a subject in and of itself, stemming from a long line of photographers that includes Dorthea Lange and Walker Evans, among many others.

People can experience the shopping experience in very different ways, whether through the stylized and idealized version of advertising photography or via the type of work that photographers like Brian Ulrich are producing. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we interact with and are affected by imagery in subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) images on a daily basis. This comes in the form of internet sites, YouTube, Tv news, movies, photographs, ads, cell phones, billboards, and so on. Getting beyond merely looking at image content, and taking a closer look at how people understand, interact with, and experience photographs (see the work of Elizabeth Edwards and Jay Ruby for starters) can be yield, I think, incredibly valuable information about the contemporary world in which we live.

No comments: