On the Outcroppings of Reality

[April 30, 2011]

As the impact of social media on everyday life settles into a predictable routine, you naturally find more and more digital imagery uploaded by everyday people. So if our data is accurate and time spent at the major social media hubs is climbing exponentially, “reality” photos are now core components of our visual diet.

So the question is: What has that shift in visual intake done to the expectations of Web site visitors? Can a generation drenched in spur-of-the-moment imagery be expected to respond well to the poised, quaffed and artistically cropped stock art that dominates current Web design?

I’m not so sure. Strangely, the trend toward adding more “grit” to commercial photography is just about ready for its Archeology moment. Without even trying, I’ve been hearing about grainy black & white, documentary-style esthetics for at least two decades.

Today, one encounters knock-offs of this more “real” photography at street level, every time a major city sponsors an open air market. In recent years, it’s not surprising that the trend toward a semblance of spontaneity in promotional imagery has taken a significant upturn.

But clearly, that’s not the same thing as making a real commitment to Reality. Like the retailer who brings out an “eco” line of products instead of simply taking the crap out of their mainstream products, the attempt to reach people through artificial honesty is disingenuous.

Phony + earnest = phony.
More to the point, for everyone focused on the fictive “bottom line,” is whether standard photographic techniques are now just too phony to be taken seriously. A few years back, Dove’s well-intentioned Campaign for Real Beauty used a cagily selective cross-section of striking non-models to make a point about one of our most pervasive cultural problems.

Posed the same way as the poutiest fashion models, with professional make-up and better lighting than most people will ever have in their entire lives, the “reality” status of these women was compromised. Where, I have to ask, was the real beauty, to be found in the tireless contributions women make to the world everyday—with or without the aid of dubiously named “anti-aging cream?“

Seeing in the vernacular.
Reality is defined always and only by context. Taken out of context, flattened out against studio backgrounds, even the Dove women became abstractions, as objectified as any runway gamin. Ultimately, it’s not clear whether Dove actually advanced the cause of social reform or merely jumped on the coattails of a critical debate that’s been part of our collective consciousness for over 40 years.

Dove’s motives aside, I question the continued use of over-produced photography, at least in digital space. Not that I advocate a camera-phone-only rule, but it seems to me brands need to abandon both the slick and the falsely non-slick— and opt for a style closer to the vernacular form of “image-ese” spoken by more and more digital natives.

Done quietly and without PR hype, we might actually have a chance to leech “beauty-ism”—that slow-acting cultural poison—out of American society. In doing so, we might also go a long way to building people’s trust for what they gather from a brand’s Web presence.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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