Kodak Three Point Reflection Guide, Christopher Williams (2005)

In a photographic portrait that has been appropriated and recontextualized by conceptual artist Christopher Williams, a woman smiles for the camera, her head tilted forward and eyes gazing into the lens. Bold colors protrude from the stark grey background, contrasting her pale complexion and semi-nude body. The woman, presumably a model, wears yellow towels around her torso and head, as if freshly renewed from her daily shower. Yet, the image is clearly not a snapshot capturing the common routines in the intimate confines of her domestic environment but rather consciously placed in a studio setting, decontextualizing an implied narrative and emphasizing the product that she wears. In case there were any confusion in the matter, the image includes a color chart fastened to a steel clip, the kind that commercial photographers regularly used in the days of analogue photography to assure correct white balance and color tonality. With this detail, it is immediately recognizable that the image is not the common commercial photograph used in popular advertising and mass media but one that references the process of its creation and back story. The smiling face, all innocent and pleading for an ambiguous facade, is disrupted and we are brought back to prioritize the image’s construction, before it reached the glossy pages of a presumed commercial outlet.

On closer inspection of the image’s title, the viewer is given insight into the context of the image’s original use. Kodak Three Point Reflection Guide, © 1968 Eastman Kodak Company, 1968 (Miko smiling), Vancouver, B.C., April 6, 2005 suggests that the inclusion of the photographer’s technical tools were not a mistake. Instead, the image was produced as a guide for amateur photographers to improve their craft. Rather than reference an actual commercial photograph, Williams appropriates an image that was constructed to look like one. As Kodak’s guide was meant to appeal to the masses of budding photography enthusiasts, the image represents the ultimate goal and aesthetic of “professional” photographic production, in a sense, to mimic the perfection of stock photography.

Christopher Williams’ title does not stop at the level of provenance. It also includes the date that he re-produced the image, almost forty years after its initial incarnation in the Kodak Three Point Reflection Guide. The lapse in time is particularly telling. Spanning the decades when digital photography was not only born but experienced an entire revolution in our traditional understanding of the photographic medium, the image is archaic, speaking to the nostalgia of an era of analogue photography’s past. Yet, the basic model for commercial photography has not much changed. The image in question could with out a doubt be used in any marketing campaign today for cosmetics, beauty, or acne-fighting products. While photography has imploded in these forty years between the image’s production and re-presentation, the criteria for good studio photography remains relatively untouched.

Gracing the cover of the April 2006 issue of Artforum, the image began to reference an even more complicated discourse, that of the status of commercial imagery and stock photography in contemporary art practice. As photography experiences a crisis in defining itself as an artistic medium in the digital age, such appropriation processes seem to ring more true, more authentic, more relevant, to the ways in which photography functions in our world today. By examining the most mundane images that bombard us on a daily basis in magazines, posters, billboards, television, and the Internet, Christopher Williams’ image begins to define and articulate the burden of stock photography in contemporary image-based practices.

If we are to consider a definitive aesthetic of stock photography, its archetypal photograph would be described as specifically commercial, where the image is carefully composed, artificially lit, with vivid colors and a consciousness of its planning and orchestrated outcome. It is inherently fluid and malleable as an object of graphic design, immediately interchangeable from an archive of similar options that can be applied to a myriad of contexts accordingly. Because stock photography is intended to be vague enough to relate to different kinds of commercial outlets, the image is constructed to symbolize universal values and neutral positions. In this way, stock photography is inherently quiet, un-arresting, and meant to serve as a background or filler. On the one hand, stock photography represents a culmination of what the medium traditionally aspired to be as a specialized practice, one that is iconic and produced in a professional manner, with careful attention to lighting, exposure, and composition. At the same time, it is also the death of its aspirations as a fine art medium, resulting in an aesthetic that is dull, redundant, uninspired, and un-hierarchical in nature.

The notion of stock photography has been thoroughly explored in 20th century art, from Salvador Dali’s The Phenomena of Ecstasy and Duchamp’s readymade studies to Dada, Pop Art, the Pictures Generation, and postmodern photography.1 Yet, today a new generation of contemporary artists examine the discourse of stock photography in a more nuanced light. Artists such as Christopher Williams, Elad Lassry, Roe Etheridge, and Penelope Umbrico, to name a few, appropriate and mimic the visual tropes of stock photography in a conceptual investigation of how such images operate in our media age. This could be described as the crisis of stock photography, where its over-saturation necessitates critical reflection and speculative debate.

Nailpolish, Elad Lassry (2009)

Elad Lassry’s series of still life compositions look to the world of advertising photography and its seeming perfection. Lassry refers to his practice as an interest in “pictures,” sharing a commonality with his alma mater, the California Institute of Arts, where Christopher Williams also attended and where John Baldessari, a pioneering artist of the Pictures Generation, held unofficial reign.2 In Nailpolish (2009), Lassry depicts the classic product shot featuring bottles of red nail polish, propped up by green pillars on a table-top studio stand. The image is direct, simple, and highlights the product that the image is presumed to be selling. The green pillars, the only objects in the image that suggest a consciousness of being “artful,” contrast with the bold color of the nail polish to make the red pop and direct the viewer’s attention. With differing levels of heights, the pillars give the image structural composition, mimicking the way that studio photographers position their subjects for family portraits or yearbook photos. Yet, Lassry’s intervention does not stop at the level of the image; a colored frame has been added to match the green hue of the props. In this seemingly decorative and playful gesture, Lassry calls attention not only to the kinds of stock photography that he alludes to in the image but its recontextualization into the domain of fine art. Such a practice could be compared to Jacques Derrida’s concept of the parergon, which sought to deconstruct Kant’s preposition of a universal value of beauty by focusing on its oppositional limit in the edges of the frame.3 By focusing on the site of the frame as an integral part of the work, Lassry takes stock photography out of its repetition and anonymity and makes it a three dimensional and unique object.

Thanksgiving 1984, Roe Ethridge (2009)

Roe Ethridge’s Thanksgiving (1984) blurs the distinctions between commercial portrait photography and family snapshots in a comment on the construction of photographic memory. The image, carefully arranged and professionally lit, is too perfect and seamlessly constructed to be considered the documentation of an actual event. The subject, presumably a model who has been styled and directed, gazes slightly away from the camera, as if she were in mid-conversation with guests at a Thanksgiving dinner. The table in front of her is cluttered with all the symbols of an iconic Thanksgiving meal, including a turkey, cranberry sauce, cornucopia, and a festive cup. In its presentation, the Thanksgiving meal looks more like the inedible product displays at restaurants who advertise their dishes by spraying shellac on the food to keep it looking fresh. In the overload of visual references that suggest the archetypal holiday meal, it comes across as too obvious for the image not to be orchestrated and set up. As the most predominate aspect of the image is the model’s yellow sweater, it would be safe for the viewer to assume that the image was rather intended to advertise and market her clothes. Yet, in the title’s reference to 1984, Ethridge seems to suggest a memory of a past event. Instead of the general fogginess of a memory that occurred twenty five years before the image’s creation, the photograph is its polar opposite, hyper-real.

Suns (from Sunsets) from Flickr, Penelope Umbrico (2006-ongoing)

While Williams, Lassry, and Ethridge all appropriate from the ghosts of analogue photography and printed advertisements, Penelope Umbrico investigates the status of stock photography in the digital age. In her Suns (From Sunsets) from Flickr series, Umbrico constructs grids of 4 x 6 inch images of sunsets uploaded by users of Flickr, an image sharing website, creating an installation that envelops the room and overwhelms the viewer’s visual space. If each image represents a unique event, one that was considered important enough not only to capture but also to share, its presentation as a group reduces the photographs to mere cliché. The title of each installation reflects the number of images available on the Internet on the day of printing. In her first iteration in September 2007, there were 2,303,057 suns. By her installation in February 2011, there were 8,730,221. In each iteration, Umbrico presents documentation of a particular moment, which, at this pace, has already become physically inconceivable. If analogue stock photography was carefully constructed and carried out by a team of professional photographers, stock photography in the digital age expands to include user-driven archives and an amateur aesthetic. The images do not represent a picturesque landscape or seaside evening, both allusions to sunsets that would create appeal and desire for the intended viewer. Instead, they are snapshots that represent for the (amateur) photographer a larger metaphor of their experience. Yet, at the same time, these supposed unique experiences are drowned out by its sheer repetition, making each event replaceable and relatively unimportant.

In one sense, these artists’ examination of stock photography insinuate an inherently pessimistic critique, albeit a very silent one at that. Their projects suggest that we have reached a point where the endless reproduction of the same is all we have left, and they quietly mimic its visual tropes. Their critique goes beyond Guy Debord’s concept of spectacle, a social and political theory that examined the effects of a society oversaturated in media images. 4 Such a discourse that follows an ultimately Marxist critique (and potential emancipation) seems to no longer apply in this advanced stage of our image-based society. For these projects, it is about the ambivalent space between the viewer recognizing the image’s aesthetic value as a product of a commercial domain and negotiating how this intersects in a highly conceptualized art reception.

Yet, it is of course not the simple question of avant garde or kitsch either, because those distinctions were clearly made a half a century ago. It is simply that the images are there, that they exist, that archives build up and amass and begin to overflow. It is this space of overflow that their message lies, one that does not overwhelm the viewer with such definitive sociological and political reading but that becomes uncomfortable for the viewer to digest and sift. As stock photography is everywhere, these artists proclaim that it is anywhere, and this difference catapults photographic appropriation into a new realm of conceptual expression.

  1. Of course, any investigation of image appropriation strategies inherently refers back to its legacy in the history of modern art. Marcel Duchamp’s concept of the readymade inaugurated a new method of artistic production that would come to figure heavily in artistic practice for the next century. By extension, if Duchamp’s objects could be considered art by virtue of the artist’s declaration, the plethora of available imagery in modern culture could similarly be mined as potential sources. Artists in the 1920s and 1930s used strategies of collage and montage to juxtapose imagery of conflicting ideological sources, from the ironic humor of Kurt Schwitter’s Merz collages to the overtly political photomontage of John Heartfield. While image appropriation has been associated with many artistic movements of the twentieth century, including Cubism, Dada, Surrealism, and Pop Art, it was not until the 1980s that image appropriation evolved into a medium in its own right. 4 Artists associated with the Pictures Generation examined the psychology of the mass-circulated image and its effect on our understanding of reality and lived experience. By doing little more than lifting images out of their original context and into the discursive space of art, Pictures artists subtly subverted the media image by exposing its secondary connotations and re-motivating its meaning, questioning notions of authorship, originality, and authenticity. (Clement Cheroux, “Times Gold,” From Here On. Exhibition catalogue. Rencontres d’Arles Photography Festival, Arles, France, 2011.)
  2. Roxana Marcoci, “New Photography 2010: Elad Lassry,” Museum of Modern Art, 2005, Accessed 10 February 2013, .
  3. In “The Parergon”, published in The Truth in Painting, Jacques Derrida attacks the logic of Kant’s Critique of Judgment to argue against the belief in the intrinsic nature of the work of art. Derrida questions Kant’s presupposition of a universal value of beauty, which would inevitably assume a clear, delineated line between the inside and outside of the “proper” work. Refuting the notion of an a priori essence of beauty, of one intrinsic, reducible quality, Derrida questions these foundations by looking at their oppositional limit in the edges of the frame. By looking at the site of the frame, what Kant wanted to suppress, Derrida shows that the distinction between the inside and outside can never be fully attained. According to Derrida, the outside always comes into the inside in order to define itself as an inside. (Jacques Derrida, “The Parergon,” The Truth in Painting, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.)
  4. In Society of the Spectacle, Debord located the individual’s alienation in a consumer society that enforced a passivity brought upon by the proliferation of the mass media industry. Extending Karl Marx’s notion of commodity fetishism, Debord defined the spectacle as “a social relationship that is mediated by images,” where all social life is reduced to mere appearance. Under Debord’s argument, the cultural climate was transforming into a world where reality, authenticity, and autonomous selfhood no longer carried significance. Jean Baudrillard offered an alternate theory in his concept of the simulacra, which while following Debord’s argument that the image has replaced reality, does not see a hope for an eventual Marxist emancipation. (Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, New York: Zone Books, 1995, originally published in French in 1967).

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