This paper is concerned with photography as strategic imagery. Strategic imagery consists of images intended to persuade, promote, or otherwise perform strategic intentions. Encompassing advertising, billboards, packaging, promotional brochures, point of purchase displays, viral media, and website design, strategic imagery comprises a large portion of contemporary visual culture. Pictures of people–models, celebrity endorsers, spokespersons, “average” consumers, managers and employees—make up a large part of this imagery.1 In turn, visual images constitute much strategic imagery for products and services, about economic performance, or designed to promote organizational identity. Within this purview, advertising has long since moved beyond its traditional role of “showing products” or “informing” consumers. Much strategic imagery, of course, does not show products at all; instead, it encourages a range of aesthetic, cognitive and emotional effects to promote a vision of a brand’s essential role in a good life. Much of this promotion depends upon visual style, how images appear, and how they fit into broader trajectories of visual culture.
If we take a close look at how strategic imagery deploys the snapshot aesthetic, we gain insight into the flows between high and low forms of visual culture, into how photography itself interacts with, supports, and enhances corporate strategy, and how visual style articulates certain assumptions about the market. These articulations construct viewers as consumers by addressing the subject of snapshot aesthetics as a consuming subject. The snapshot’s insistence upon lived experience, or what has been called “the rhetoric of authenticity,” underlies its usefulness in illustrating and marketing consumer experience.2
This contemporary look at snapshot aesthetics and strategic imagery underlines the importance of the snapshot as a genre to the rise of advertising photography. That a snapshot aesthetic was elevated in the canons of fine art marks an essential element of its contemporary usage to provide glamour, aura, and refinement to countless products, brands and organizations. Perhaps this is most clear in luxury brand marketing, and it is from this realm that we take several examples.
Style and strategy typically inhabit different domains. Style generally remains the province of the humanities, whereas strategy occupies an important position within the applied social sciences, management in particular.3 Yet style–a distinctive look, or a recognizable way of expression–forms a foundational element of strategic communication, that is, communication designed to communicate a brand identity, corporate “vision,” or organizational mission. Style helps organizations tell stories within recognizable genres. Style associates strategy with high culture. Style performs certain brands.
To provide a distinct interdisciplinary perspective on the strategic use of photography, I turn to a particular style as an illustration of how style intersects with corporate communication and informs strategy. I am not concerned much here with traditional markers of advertising analysis, ranging from cultural critique to commercial success. Rather, I mobilize the strategic use of snapshot aesthetics to animate several concerns about how the strategic imagination encompasses photography and its contemporary uses, drawing upon theories of photography, visual culture studies, marketing communication, and consumer culture theory.4
Snapshot-like imagery emerged as a powerful vehicle for showing consumers “in action” with products or using services. A key aspect of the snapshot style is an appearance of authenticity; snapshot-like images often appear beyond the artificially constructed world of typical corporate communication.5 This visual quality can be harnessed to promote organizations as authentic, to invoke the average consumer as a credible product endorser, or to demonstrate how the brand might fit in with the regular consumer’s or employee’s lifestyle. I place snapshot aesthetics within a genealogy of “everyday” depictions in visual culture, in particular twentieth-century street photographers such as Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand. I discuss a small set of contemporary uses of snapshot aesthetics in marketing communication, including the work of photographer Terry Richardson. This contextualization, which may be typical within visual culture studies, is rather rare within management research on marketing communication (fig. 1).
An interdisciplinary lens helps us understand how a type of image operates between and among different registers, in this case, between advertising and aesthetics, as well as between two economies, experience, and image.6 Advertising images can be understood simultaneously as visual culture artifacts and strategic communication tools.
In management studies, the figure of “the consumer” looms large. An interesting question remains, however, about when a viewer becomes a consumer. That is, do boundaries persist between “appreciating,” “viewing” and, “critiquing” visual artifacts, or are all of these activities subsumed by visual consumption? Visual culture studies often remain uninformed of research on brand communication, consumer research, and marketing theory, with the result that the consumer is overlooked.7 Management studies, with its focus on quantitative and predictive models of consumer behavior, leave the question of culture out of the equation. Often, the ways advertising is defined within management studies and beyond – as strategic communication, with a particular purpose—may derail critically informed visual analysis.8 I find an analogue in how my students quickly form evaluative or emotional judgments of images: “I like it” (accelerated by the logic Facebook’s “like” buttons), or “that is not a good ad” (informed by their interest in advertising as a career). Part of my task as a teacher includes urging my students to transcend mere evaluation, liking or not liking, and delve in to critical analysis. But when the image in question is an ad, this remains difficult, as they are informed by the logic of advertising that precludes placing images in cultural context and discourages stylistic connections. Of course, I do not mean to collapse advertising into style, or suggest that advertising necessarily occupies a similar aesthetic plane as, say, photography. I am also aware that advertising can be critiqued as “the face of capitalism” as well as for its representational practices.9 Rather, I am attempting to bring interdisciplinary insights to bear on the intersection between advertising, photography, and visual culture.
I argue that the snapshot aesthetic shows consumers in the midst of seemingly real, sometimes exciting, but often-mundane experiences.10 We can think about it then as an important visual aspect of documenting, marketing, and understanding experience, as well as an exemplary strategic style that operates in the liminal zones between private and public, personal and corporate, art and commerce. Focusing on style, a technology of glamour helps highlight organizational construction and strategic deployment of icons, codes, and representational conventions across a range of genres, encompassing fine art, advertising, corporate reportage, fashion photography, web design, popular photography, and film.11 In this paper, I will use style, when referencing snapshot aesthetics, to refer to things related to the look, production and consumption of snapshots and snapshot-like imagery. For example, some ads show images of snapshots, often indicated by a small white border surrounding a photograph, or a faded look—presumably indicating their age–with the development date as confirmation. The act of snapshot photography can also be represented, as in cases where ads are set in a photo both, on a vacation, or during a family celebration—“actual” or staged for the shoot. In this way, snapshot aesthetics channels nostalgia and indexes authenticity.12 The snapshot as a photograph and thus a material object may be fading from use, but the snapshot aesthetic continues, representing memories and moments, often via repetition of meaningful activities, such as birthday parties, holidays, and other “happy” events.13 While I focus largely on fashion ads, I acknowledge that many other industries have embraced the snapshot aesthetic as well. The staged spontaneity of the snapshot offers a powerful and flexible strategic and stylistic tool that forms a basis of an entire image economy. By harnessing style as a strategic tool, organizations build upon cultural references to produce meaning and value, turning on assumptions about photography, what it shows, and what it is “for.”
A Brief, Visual Genealogy of Snapshot Aesthetics
One difficulty in apprehending snapshot aesthetics as an intentional style—as well as a strategic resource—lies in its realism. I argue that this aspect of snapshot aesthetics underlies and supports its contemporary uses as “authentic” (looking) communication. Realism, considered as a trans-historical category of representation, often eludes traditional discourses of style. As Linda Nochlin writes, “the commonplace notion that Realism is a ‘styleless’ or transparent style, a mere simulacrum or mirror image of visual reality, is another barrier to its understanding as an historical and stylistic phenomenon.”14 In other words, realistic looking snapshots often seem to have no style at all, or appear unstylized. This “absence of style” is itself a style, and the contradiction between ads that don’t appear stylized and the creative stylization required to produce them remains at the heart of snapshot aesthetics’ strategic success. Therefore, style forms a fundamental core of art history; here, I emphasize visual style as a key component of snapshot aesthetics and its relationship between photography and strategy. To understand how certain styles work within strategic communication, we must then delve into their cultural histories, for the pictorial conventions within such histories offer clues to contemporary practices.
My thinking about snapshot aesthetics begins with the Dutch genre art of the Golden Age, a period that most art historians agree signaled a new era in Western painting. Like contemporary snapshot aesthetics, Dutch paintings portray consumer lifestyles, filled with friends, lovers, consumer goods, and entertainment. Dutch art is often seen in moral terms—the images provide instructions in how to live a pious life. Along the same lines, one might say that contemporary advertising delivers instructions on how to live a prosperous life. The style of Dutch art profoundly influenced painting, and in turn, advertising. Dutch genre art relied on a realist style; domestic scenes were generally void of classical or mythical iconography. Dutch art showed recognizable people in quotidian settings. Many Dutch paintings picture interiors, presenting a vision of single family home, a women’s domestic space, and a way of life that included orderliness, possession, and display. These kind of scenes fill contemporary marketing communication—now called the slice of life, that reify the everyday, the vernacular, and the captured moment. As we will see, Terry Richardson, in particular, has capitalized on the aesthetic—and often erotically charged, or at least titillating—aspects of everyday, mundane life. Other important antecedents of contemporary snapshot aesthetics include the photographic genres of reportage, street photography, as well as the film styles of neo-realism and documentary that emerged during the twentieth century.15 Here, I largely confine my discussion to twentieth-century photography.
Twentieth Century Photography
Snapshot photography offers the most closely related artistic genre to the contemporary use of snapshot aesthetics. In the mid-twentieth century, photographers, equipped with high quality, portable cameras began to photograph and exhibit everyday life—in the streets, on the road, in private settings—in a realist style. Photographer Robert Frank’s classic 1958 book The Americans provides a useful point of departure for contextualizing contemporary snapshot aesthetics. As photography theorist Philip Gefter writes:
The immediacy, spontaneity, and compositional anarchy in [Robert Frank’s] picture frame changed expectations about the photograph. It created a new way of seeing for subsequent generations of photographers. In fact, The Americans might be looked at today as the apotheosis of the snapshot (the snapshot in and of itself being the backbone of unselfconscious photographic imagery in the twentieth century) and the birth of the “snapshot aesthetic.”16
Frank’s style, or seeming lack of style vís-a-vís the formalist aesthetics of his day, profoundly influenced mid-century photography: “his pictures show us common people in ordinary situations, but his documentation was as much about his personal experience as it was about his subject matter.”17
One image from The Americans, “Television studio – Burbank, California, 1956,” plays on the snapshot aesthetic by showing a woman being filmed alongside the resulting picture shown on a console television set. The two images of the woman – obviously the “same” image, appear a bit different, as we view her from two different angles. The photograph is bisected by a strange, floating object – a wooden frame consisting of several diamond shapes joined together. Upon reflection, it seems that it must be part of the television stage backdrop, that what looks odd in the photograph must provide visual detail on screen. The woman – a newscaster? – seems relaxed, caught a bit off guard, glancing to her left. Her shadow looms in the background, making the photo a kind of triple portrait. Various studio equipment surrounds her, framing her, capturing her image for the camera. The photo shows a television studio, but reveals intriguing aspects of photographed life.
Frank’s photographic goals, of course, were documentary and aesthetic. When considered in the context of strategic use of the snapshot, we begin to understand some of the underlying tensions of this phenomenon. The context in which images are seen remains critically important for their reception. The strategic use of snapshot aesthetic seems to play with the basic boundaries between strategy and aesthetics, authenticity and staging, and journalism as fact and advertising as fiction.18
This presumed dichotomy—newspaper equals fact, advertising equals fiction—offers a way of thinking about how snapshot aesthetics “translates” to strategic imagery. Because authenticity presents itself as a critical component of many contemporary branding campaigns, the ability to represent realistic-looking, unselfconscious scenes emerged in the past twenty years as an antidote to dominant models of advertising. Snapshot aesthetics troubles the notion that advertising is fiction, particularly when the advertising in question deploys consumer-generated snapshots. Those snapshots, which are apparently “real,” elude simple distinctions between fact and fiction, joining debates on the nature of photography itself.
According to Mia Fineman, by the 1960s, “the idea of the ‘snapshot aesthetic’ began to gain currency in art photography circles. Photographers like Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand prowled the streets of New York with handheld cameras, producing images that seemed random, accidental, and caught on the fly”19 (fig. 2). Friedlander, for example, became known for his photographs taken from moving vehicles (fig. 3). By carrying his camera with him on his automobile journeys, Friedlander helped show how the world looks when traveling in a car, and windshields often provided a ready made picture frame. Winogrand, too, shot pictures on the move, in his lifelong attempt to show what things looked like when photographed. This pronouncement, which serves as a kind of simple manifesto for snapshot aesthetics, was made during a lecture in Rochester, the home of Kodak. As writer Geoff Dyer recounts:
In October 1970 Winogrand was at the Rochester Institute of Technology, New York, showing slides, taking questions from the audience. Someone asked him about Frank’s photos of the American flag. Winogrand said that they didn’t interest him much. He preferred to talk about the picture of the gas station that Frank had photographed near Santa Fe, New Mexico. It’s a picture of five ‘Shamrock’ gas pumps against a nondescript landscape. Looming over the pumps is a sign with the letters S A V E illuminated and the intervening ones—G A S—barely visible. That’s all there is, but, for Winogrand, the fact that it’s “a photograph of nothing,” that “the subject has no dramatic ability of its own whatsoever,” makes it “one of the most important pictures in the book.” What amazed Winogrand was that Frank could even “conceive of that being a photograph in the first place.” [Winogrand declared] “I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed.”20
Given the scope of the contemporary strategic use of photography, I suppose a contemporary analogue of Winogrand’s quest would be: what does the world look like advertised? But, of course, the more restricted question of what that photograph would look like in an advertisement is already largely answered, as the range of photographs—including historical prints, journalistic photographs, personal pictures —that appear in ads and corporate websites is vast. Furthermore, the logic of advertising informs our use of Facebook, YouTube, and our personal websites—we are all marketers now. The stylistic advances attributed to Frank, Friedlander, Winogrand and many others continue to affect how we think about what can and should be photographed; we are now seeing a similar shift in what can and should be represented in strategic imagery.
Particularly in the US, snapshot, street, or documentary-style photography exerted a profound influence on aesthetic and social questions about the role photography could play in culture.21 Leading museums and curators, such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, propelled by influential photography curator, John Szarkowski, embraced this body of work.22 Often associated with documentary photography, this style seemed separate from the commercial world of advertising and fashion photography. Ironic, perhaps, that the style now lends itself so well to strategic aims.
For most of us, snapshots mean something because they preserve a memory, capture a moment, or depict a friend, family member or loved one–the same themes that Kodak promoted for decades. From a personal point of view—rather than a strategic sensibility—the significance of snapshot aesthetics often revolves around what we see and feel when viewing snapshots, rather than what they mean to art historians, curators, and collectors. Douglas Nickel suggests, “The more interesting theoretical questions about snapshots have to do with their power over us. The odd image from a found album might remind us of photographs we already know—the chance Rodchenko or Stieglitz look-alike—but the majority recall other snapshots we have seen and the feelings they evoke”23 (fig. 4). This familiar look—as if we’ve seen it before, and can relate to the image—constitutes an important element of snapshot aesthetics’ strategic connection. As John Berger brilliantly pronounced, advertising necessarily sells the past to the future.24 For Geoffrey Batchen, the role of the snapshot revolves more around showcasing positive images for the future, not remembering the past.25 When considering snapshot aesthetics and strategy, this conception fits in well with John Berger’s famous dictum.
Snapshot aesthetics often embraces the fine line between formal photography and randomness, between intention, posing, and editing, on one hand, and spontaneity, photography as experience, and strategic intention, on the other. Winogrand’s mantra of photographing what’s there to see what it looks like in a photograph—while fueling the contemporary strategic use of the snapshot—belies the intentionality, staging, and scripting that goes in to advertising images, so carefully documented in the growing number of behind the scenes videos of advertising, magazine cover and fashion shoots, such as “Daisy Lowe and Dr. Martens” and “Emma Watson for Burberry.”26
Within advertising research, a few scholars have begun to articulate and document visual rhetoric and its associated styles. However, this research remains largely focused on effectiveness.27 In particular, in response to the imperatives of global marketing campaigns, in which visual content is often more readily translated to local markets, and the rise of the internet, the landscape of strategic communication has undergone a visual turn, and a profound stylistic change, opening new lines of communication in the interdisciplinary project of visual studies. This change reflects a basic transformation in how people are addressed by strategic communication, largely centering on the triumph of the visual over the verbal: “the changes observed in advertising style reflect substantive changes in the consumers to which these ads were directed, and that these stylistic changes were necessary if such advertising was to continue to be effective.”28 Thus, intricate connections between style and strategy reveal aspects of the visible realm or how advertising often masks its own construction.
The Image in Brand Culture
Branding has emerged as one of the key tools of the market while brands can be considered managerial concepts that encompass a wide array of activities, including strategic planning, advertising, pricing, promotion, and “positioning.” The latter concerns how brands take on meaning in the minds of consumers. A brand culture perspective reveals how branding has opened up to include cultural, sociological, and theoretical enquiry that both complements and complicates economic and managerial analysis of corporate strategy.29 If brands exist as cultural, ideological, and aesthetic concepts, then researchers require tools to understand culture, ideology and aesthetics, in conjunction with more typical branding concepts, such as equity, strategy, and value. Work within this tradition focuses on the cultural building blocks of value for particular brand campaigns, often, but not always with managerial relevance in mind. There is, however, a growing literature in critical marketing studies.30
I have argued for an art historical imagination within communication, branding, and consumer research, one that reveals how stylistic conventions—or common patterns of portraying objects, people, or identities—work alongside rhetorical processes in ways that often elude management studies. This approach bears something in common with cultural studies approaches, for example, John Berger’s trenchant analysis of advertising and art.31 My interest in how photography—encompassing still, digital, film and, consumer generated imagery—“works” as a branding and communicative tool is not merely to understand photography’s persuasive power, but rather to begin to appreciate the intricate connections between advertising and photography at the level of style.
I continue tracing the genealogy of the snapshot beyond Dutch genre art, from street photography and reportage, to contemporary uses of the snapshots, such as paparazzi photography and photoblogs. I discuss the role of snapshot aesthetics in contemporary brand communication and then present a wider view and a set of questions about the relationships between style and strategy. What is the historical background of the snapshot, and how has it been regarded within theories of photography? What are the cultural implications of the snapshot, and how might these be visually communicated? What is the visual genealogy of snapshot aesthetics? Does snapshot aesthetics relate to new media forms such as Twitter, an audio analog of the snapshot, with quickly composed tweets acting as digital snapshots of everyday life? In short, what can we learn about the relationship between photography and strategy by focusing on snapshot aesthetics?
Snapshot Aesthetics: Conceptual Overview
The snapshot, a straightforward, generally unposed photograph of everyday life, has emerged as an important visual framework in contemporary strategic communication.32 Many recent advertisements, annual reports, and websites portray models in classic snapshot poses in contrast to more traditional and historical patterns of formal studio shots or highly posed tableaux. Companies such as American Apparel, Apple, Coca-Cola, IKEA, Kmart, Renault-Nissan, and Sisley deploy snapshot-like images in their print, television, and Internet communications. These snapshots often appear less formal, more everyday, “real” or spontaneous—more “authentic.” “Intentional” snapshots are often characterized by disruptions in formal photographic traditions—off lighting, poor focus, blurred images, awkward poses, harsh shadows, or other deviations from formal photographic practice. As art critic Craig Garrett observes, writing about an early articulation on snapshot aesthetics in the 1990s, “[These images’] concreteness, a major departure from fashion’s obligatory abstractions of beauty, generated both praise and indignation. Readers and cultural commentators alike sensed the political potential that clung to the snapshot aesthetic, and they pinned the style with the label ‘dirty realism’ and, more dismissively, ‘heroin chic.’”33 Of course, “concreteness” remains a slippery term, but what is noteworthy here is the explicit contrast between snapshot aesthetics and traditional representations, or “abstractions,” of fashion. Along with Benetton’s controversial incorporation of journalistic-like images into its advertising arsenal, snapshot aesthetics represented a visual turn in the strategic imagination.
Exemplars of Snapshot Aesthetics
Dr. Martens original boots feature prominently in the company’s recent advertising campaigns, which aim to build upon their iconic status, while expanding their fashion potential. Dr. Martens, a “working man’s” boot that “transcends the superficiality of fashion” provides a useful example of the strategic uses of snapshot aesthetics.34 Model Daisy Lowe stars in one campaign, appearing in various edgy poses, pairing her Dr. Martens boots with a patent trench coat, leggings and shorts. Dr. Martens has enjoyed a renaissance in the past few years, reconfiguring their brand identity to conform to a fashion sensibility.35 Therefore, by channeling punk’s rebellious aspects into brand identity, they helped reimagine a punk icon in the mode of a consumer badge. What is more is that many of Dr. Marten’s ad campaigns draw on an amateur mode of snapshot aesthetics. In a film produced about her campaign, Lowe reports, “The thing about this shoot is that it’s not stylized at all.” Watch this video and realize how staged and structured many ad campaigns are—it takes a film crew, an ad crew, stylists, photographers, and, of course, models, to produce something that “isn’t stylized.” Despite Lowe’s glib protestations, her Dr. Martens ads depend upon style for their narrative power.
As sophisticated consumers, we should know that, of course, the campaign is stylized; the video of the shoot reveals just how much effort went into to making it appear “not stylized.” Listen as Lowe enthuses about the boots and the shoot. That Dr. Martens filmed the conditions of this print’s making for a television campaign makes its’ staged spontaneity all the more apparent. For the snapshot aesthetics harnessed by Dr. Martens via their staging of Daisy Lowe—a so-called “rock n roll heiress”—revolves around an insouciant, unstaged quality of the images.36 They don’t appear staged, yet they are. How is this possible? To find some answers, we turn to image producers—photographers and editors—for insights into this strategic style (fig.5).
Internationally celebrated fashion photographer Terry Richardson has emerged as one of today’s most successful and controversial fashion photographers (see figs. 1, 3, and 4). He shot Daisy Lowe for an i-D fashion magazine cover and is currently producing work for a wide range of companies, including Jimmy Choo, Sisley, Gucci, H & M, and Yves Saint Laurent. He also does editorial work for global fashion magazines such as Elle, GQ, Harper’s Bazaar, Vanity Fair, and Vogue. His images are generally brightly colored, almost garish, harshly lit, sexually suggestive and often puerile, drawing on pornography as well as snapshot aesthetics for inspiration. Though a bit sleazy, they are often strangely compelling. Richardson explains his method: “Ninety percent of the images I’ve ever taken have been done with a small camera. You don’t have to focus it or do a light reading. You can’t fuck up. And because you don’t have full control over it, they allow for accident….Those cameras aren’t invasive. It’s less formal.”37 Vogue editor Robin Derrick agrees: “Snap cameras, rather than elaborate technical cameras, put the emphasis back on the photographer as auteur, rather than as technician…With point-and-shoot cameras, what becomes interesting is what you point it at.”38 The snapshot aesthetic centers attention on the photographer, not the camera; in other words, it focuses on the subject of the shoot, not the photograph’s formal structure. The snapshot, along with its close relatives paparazzi photography, reality TV, and photoblogs, represents a particularly influential style that many contemporary advertising photographers embrace.
For example, the brand Marc Jacobs has productively employed snapshots by well-known German photographer Juergen Teller in a long-running campaign that has garnered wide attention (fig 6). As the New York Times commented: “An astonishing array of people has appeared in the ads, generally doing nothing in the Seinfeldian sense — lying in the grass, kicking up their heels, teasing a squirrel. [These ads] serve an authentic record of the distractions and tastes of the moment.”39 By “not doing much” the ads visually emphasize the celebrities and semi-celebrities that form the core of the Marc Jacobs lifestyle brand. The apparent authenticity of these images—they appear not constructed—contributes to their appeal, both as a photograph and as an ad—and they circulate widely on the Internet, in blogs and fashion forums. Of course, to appear “not constructed” may require much planning, effort, and “strategy,” evidence of which may be cropped or otherwise removed from the consumer’s experience of the final image. Marc Jacobs hired Daisy Lowe as their “face” for 2009, serving as reminder of how snapshot aesthetics accumulates particular signature characteristics and icons. The style of Marc Jacobs’ advertising provides the basis for a successful, long running branding campaign, attracting interest outside the confines of strategic communication.
Kmart’s recent advertising forays represent another facet of snapshot aesthetics (fig. 7, fig. 8). Kmart, the once dominant discount store, now largely eclipsed by Wal-Mart, Costco and online retailers, has struggled for years. My earliest memory of Kmart is from 1973, when it was near its financial peak. A group of friends and I went there right after seeing the movie Bang the Drum Slowly, a tearjerker about a terminally ill baseball player, starring a young—and certainly unknown to me at the time—Robert DeNiro. I don’t remember much about the movie, but I do remember that it led us to buy Red Man chewing tobacco. Everyone in the movie used it, and it must have looked cool to a bunch of pre-teens. Kmart was the “natural” choice for our semi-illicit tobacco venture. We found someone to buy us the tobacco, and we started chewing just like we watched in the movie, afterward becoming violently sick. Apparently, you should never chew Red Man like bubble gum. And since, I have never used chewing tobacco. But, wow, what influence that movie had! We saw. We bought. We chewed. The realistic and heart-rending scenes of the movie exerted a profound influence on us, visuals that worked on my younger self in subtle ways.40 This “aspirational” aspect of visual culture, in that viewers want to be like those they see in images or films, underlies much of snapshot aesthetics’ power.
Times have been difficult for Kmart lately, but they did manage to attract interest and attention for a series of ad campaigns that draw upon snapshot aesthetics to “rebrand” the company as a savvy and up-to-date fashion retailer. As one fashion blog reports:
Featuring ‘real people wearing Kmart fashions of their choice, the ads were photographed at Manhattan’s Mark Hotel. A production team street casting in New York filmed potential models with a video camera to make sure they were telegenic. Several fashion bloggers were also hired to lend added authenticity. The campaign is aimed at ‘the kind of person who has fun with fashion but isn’t a slave to it,’ Tara Poseley, senior vice president and president of Kmart apparel, said. “It’s the type of person who doesn’t care about labels, but rather, about expressing his or her own style.”41
Note the emphasis on picturing real people who don’t care about labels, yet are nonetheless telegenic. One of the Kmart images endlessly reproduced shows a young woman, dressed in sheer black blouse, bright red socks or stockings and a loose fitting, short black and white skirt looking at the camera, pulling one leg up somewhat awkwardly, yet compellingly in a pose reminiscent of Daisy Lowe’s Dr. Martens campaign images. Her arm reaches out, as if to grab her outstretched leg. Posed against a fairly blank background, harshly lit in a typical snapshot trope, she pops out of the frame, while pastel green text complements her red socks in an overall low-key composition. The visual result is pleasing, though a bit offbeat, even while the composition strains toward symmetry. Of the campaign, Kmart’s press release further asserts: “Our new campaign is a disruptive break from fashion advertising clutter…It truly hits the mark in conveying how fun and accessible fashion can be, by capturing the essence of real people who know how to put it all together.”42
Kmart’s use of snapshot aesthetics may mark an important transition of the style to a more mainstream audience. As of this writing, it is too soon to judge the strategic effect of these campaigns, but the larger picture for Kmart looks bleak, as they continue to close retail stores and lose money. Kmart’s embrace seems to mark snapshot aesthetics’ acceptance among mainstream advertisers, yet at the same time may signal that this trend is also about over, ready to be usurped by a new look, in a frenzied attempt to break through the clutter.
Snapshot Aesthetics as a Strategic Resource: Staged Spontaneity as Style
Snapshot aesthetics accelerates photography’s apparent realism. In this way, it provides an important strategic resource for corporate communication. Brand communication that deploys snapshots, or images that appear as snapshots, can meet several strategic goals. First, these photographs appear authentic, as if they are beyond the artificially constructed world of typical promotional photography. Authenticity has been argued as a key component of consumer interaction with brands.43 Thus, an authentic-looking image may support “authentic” brands by communicating honesty, sincerity, and spontaneity.
In discussing fashion photography, photo curators Susan Kismaric and Eva Respini place snapshot aesthetics and authenticity into a wider cultural context, explaining: “two of the dominant narrative modes in fashion photography of the last decade are the influence of the cinema and the snapshot. Both of these strategies create storylines and interrupted narratives, which imbue the images with dramatic complexity and an aura of personal intimacy and authenticity.”44 Style supports strategy. In this case, the visual style of the snapshot provides synergy with the strategic (and aesthetic) goal of authenticity that, while unstable, is nonetheless key for many brand managers.45
Second, snapshot aesthetics supports a casual image of brands, particularly consumer lifestyle brands. Many brands appeal to a less formal mode of consumption, ranging from family dinners to online financial management. Popular fashion firms, in particular, court casual images for their brands. Moreover, the casual clothing market has grown in recent years, fueled by “dress-down Fridays” and an expanded demand for men’s clothing in between suits and blue jeans. Haute couture designers’ have also turned toward basic, everyday clothing, such as jeans and T-shirts, in their secondary lines, mirroring the development of the aesthetic regime of the snapshot into a potent marketing tool. Well-known examples include Burberry, Diesel, and Sisley, each of which has deployed snapshot-like photographs in high profile branding campaigns for everyday clothing lines. Benetton, too, has elevated the snapshot, along with journalistic imagery, to style icon in its long running, often criticized, and widely imitated United Colors of Benetton campaign.46
Chanel’s recent marketing effort also provides a useful example. For the campaign, Chanel built a photo booth, styled by Carine Roitfeld, the former editor of French Vogue (fig. 9). Each variant of the campaign plays with our expectations and associations of photo booth routines: posing for private pictures, mocking and making faces, goofing around, and the anticipation of a resulting photograph. Of course, these ads are not shot with a photo booth camera; they merely use the photo booth and its snapshot rituals as props for a larger visual message. Thus, fashion and design companies offering casual product lines often rely on snapshot-like imagery in their ads, catalogs, and on Web sites. These images show their products’ intended use, signaling their casual style while visually linking the brand to a seemingly everyday, unstaged experience. This imagery serves to distance the brand from corporate control, associating it instead with consumer co-creation.47
Photographic style helps articulate market segmentation strategy. Italian designer Giorgio Armani’s Collezioni clothing—his most expensive ready-to-wear collection—generally appears in classically composed black-and-white promotional images, whereas the Armani Jeans line—a more recent, entry-level brand—usually features snapshot-like images of sexualized bodies. Likewise, Burberry’s successful rebranding from conservative classic to contemporary cool seemed to benefit greatly from snapshot-like photographs, featuring supermodels Kate Moss and Stella Tennant. While the Burberry rebranding effort encompasses many other strategic initiatives, I contend that for consumers, their iconic early-2000s black-and-white photographic ad campaign remains the most visible and memorable.
Snapshot aesthetics provide a visual frame for marketing images by offering a “here and now,” a contemporary look that seems to capture a fresh and unposed moment. To create that “here and now,” snapshots often appear rushed, carelessly composed and taken almost by chance. As advertising photographer John Spinks explains: “The style is basically a recontextualisation of documentary practice. The equipment is rudimentary, but the lie is far more sophisticated, it appears to be verité but it’s not. It can be set up and contrived and as much of a fantasy as more technical shoots. A lot of the work is in the edit.”48 Snapshot aesthetics is not confined to the pose and the shot. Editing plays a role as well. Snapshots deployed in strategic brand communication invoke a realist effect that supports a range of brand associations. This realist aspect of snapshot aesthetics underlines the fashion element of many products as up-to-date, hip, and cool as opposed to classic, boring, or yesterday’s goods. Furthermore, the snapshot has traditionally been associated with fun, leisure, and smiling as in Kodak’s campaign, “Good Memories.”49 The snapshot’s valorization of leisure was accentuated by Kodak’s decades-long marketing efforts and propelled by the private uses of the snapshot.50
Snapshot Aesthetics and Consumer-generated imagery
Snapshot aesthetics further blurs the line between strategic marketing communication and popular photography (fig. 10). Advertising excels in appropriating or borrowing cultural codes and styles. Snapshot aesthetics draws on the codes and conventions of vernacular photography, transforming the humble snapshot into a powerful strategic tool. Furthermore, snapshot ads often appear as if produced by average consumers. As marketing scholars John Deighton and Leora Kornfeld point out, the “new marketplace rewards more participatory, more sincere, and less directive marketing styles than the old.”51 Thus, from the point of view of the brand manager, snapshot aesthetics offers a way into a participatory (consumer generated images), sincere and less directive (more ambiguous and flexible, perhaps) strategic style. This insight is important to understand the wider questions surrounding the snapshot aesthetic. With the rising popularity of websites that allow users to post their own photographs and videos, such as Collected Visions, Facebook, Flickr, fotolog.com, MySpace, and YouTube, as well as Google and Yahoo! image and video search engines, the snapshot enjoys higher circulation than ever.
Many consumers happily create their own ads, which are often in the snapshot or documentary style. Websites such as Current TV and YouTube offer consumers a forum to try their hand at brand communication. Occasionally, brand managers snap up successful specimens for more conventional broadcast. Ray-Ban, for example, successfully re-introduced their iconic Wayfarer sunglasses with twenty four hours of consumer generated images projected in New York’s Times Square, and followed up with consumer generated videos, viewable on their website. Many companies sponsor consumer-generated ads, including American Apparel, Converse, MasterCard, and Sony.
Snapshot aesthetics signals a step away from corporate control and staging, expanding consumers’ role to become both subjects and producers of strategic imagery. These images seem to contain less artifice, as they appear consumer-focused. At the very least they “close the gap” between the viewer and advertisement. Other uses of snapshot aesthetics involve showing snapshots within ads as a means for indexing photographs as memory, identity, and creative expression (fig. 1 and fig. 9). Burberry’s “Art of the Trench” website, which features both amateur and professional photographs of people wearing the iconic trench coat, provides a useful example. The site incorporates social media (visitors can “like” images), fashion blogs, and photo sharing sites and includes photographs from Burberry’s advertising campaigns, as well as those uploaded by fans. Thus, there is Emma Watson in London, mimicking Mario Testino’s high profile ad campaign. Next to her is “Alicia from Toronto” in a photo taken by the Satorialist, a popular fashion blogger. And next to her is “Bruno, photographed in Berlin,” which was uploaded by a “regular” user.
Snapshot Aesthetics and Theories of Photography
Snapshot aesthetics represents a successful approach for brand communication, embraced in wide-ranging industries, from finance to footwear. Even iconic luxury brands such as Marc Jacobs and Yves Saint Laurent turn to the snapshot for their corporate campaigns. The turn to this particular iteration of style allows for a multidisciplinary gaze in our understanding of images with regard to brand communication. Within this project, I embrace a genre-based perspective influenced by art historical methodologies. How photographs address viewers remains a key concern. So too, are photographs’ strategic ambiguity in corporate communication.52 Brand communication research often fails to consider photography as a genre within a changing and powerful set of conventions.
Might we say snapshot aesthetics reveals the power of marketing communication to co-opt and appropriate popular forms, even exploit formerly private, family rituals? Contemporary strategic snapshots embody a duality—spontaneous yet composed; authentic yet constructed; realistic yet sophisticated—that refers to the basic problem of photography. In other words, where does photography stand: as a recording device or an aesthetic engine? As Roland Barthes argues: “The more technology develops the diffusion of information (and most notably of images) the more it provides the means of masking the constructed meaning under the appearance of the given meaning.”53 Within the realm of the advertising images, we might say that the “constructed meaning” lies in the informational, persuasive and strategic intent of the image. In other words, advertising, for all its aesthetic sophistication, remains a promotional tool where its “given meanings” revolve around consumer response. This essential element of the relationship between viewers and ads assumes that consumers do indeed “give” meaning to ads, a claim that can be backed up by empirical studies.54
Thus, Barthes’ insight provides another key to understanding the contemporary snapshot aesthetic in marketing communications. In the past ten years, photography has expanded into more aspects of life via cellphone cameras, Skype, YouTube, iPhoto, and the panoply of technological devices that surround us. This constitutes the “technology of information diffusion” that Barthes presciently anticipated. Although picture making has become more technologically sophisticated during the digital transition, the act of photographing and sharing photographs has become simpler. Some “masking” may occur via stylistic aspects of photography, which tend to focus on the given meaning. I think Daisy Lowe succinctly captures this insight: What I like about this shoot is that it’s not stylized….
Strategic use of the snapshot often masks the constructed nature of strategic imagery. In what social theorist Nigel Thrift calls a calculated sincerity, these images often seem to offer a clear message—this is an authentic act—not one constructed solely for strategic purposes.55 In other words, ads may be viewed as entertainment, distraction, and expression instead of strictly strategic images. As photo theorist Catherine Zuromskis writes: “Emphasizing visual simplicity and the fundamental emotional bonds between photographer and subject, snapshot photography is a mode of image-making that is constructed precisely to seem unconstructed, manufactured to be read as spontaneous.”56 The staged spontaneity of the snapshot offers powerful synergy with corporate strategy. Snapshot aesthetics also has important connections to social media, including Twitter (verbal snapshots), YouTube (documentary aesthetics) blogging, and viral marketing campaigns.
Snapshot aesthetics offers a useful window into how visual images help construct brand identity by capitalizing on historical conventions within photography and realism, that is, by invoking the twin conceptions of photography as recording nature and photography as aesthetic creation. For much of its history, photography has assumed a pervasive presence in public discourse and commercial publishing; photographs quickly emerged as a key aspect visualizing everyday life. As influential British photographer Nick Knight exclaims “[t]he most exciting way to see a photograph is passing a billboard in a car, flicking past it in a magazine…That’s how it delivers its power, when it becomes part of the vernacular of everyday life.”57 Yet, often these ubiquitous images are overlooked in strategy research as mere “pictures.”58
Conclusion: Connecting Style and Strategy (without evacuating critical considerations)
Stylistic analysis helps illuminate how strategic communication acts as a representational, performative, and aesthetic system that produces value beyond the realm of the product, service, or brand, connecting images to broader aesthetic and cultural codes that help create meaning and value. This approach helps focus attention on photography as both an engine of value creation and as the ubiquitous conduit between private and public lives. However, strategic communication fits uneasily into theoretical analyses of visual culture, which is often revealed by reactions to my work.
When I lecture to business school audiences, I am asked: “do people see these things in ads?” “Aren’t you reading too much into these images?” I generally respond that I agree that most consumers are not necessarily visually literate in the kinds of conventions or genres to which I refer, and art historical references may not consciously inform their viewing of an ad. However, just as legions of Harry Potter fans may not appreciate the mythic structure of Harry’s heroic journey—which conforms closely to well-known hero stories, such as the Odyssey, King Arthur, and Star Wars—the prototypical consumer can be moved by deeper content. Likewise, most language speakers have a limited awareness of the linguistic horizon that shapes their use of vocabulary, grammar, and syntax. However, cultural and historical conventions shape communication. We may not know how language developed over time or the way that syntax functions, but we are still, nonetheless, subjects of language and its conventions. Convention in part, helps create intelligible imagery. Advertising merely makes the difficult role of intention—aren’t ads designed to sell?—loom large, as it is often assumed that ads can be reduced to persuasive intent. Just as early proponents of snapshot aesthetics disavowed the role of the subject in favor of the photographer, contemporary interest in snapshot aesthetics reveals how challenging it is to separate these aspects of photography.59
Whereas snapshot ads may appear insouciant, they remain intractably strategic. Perhaps, too, strategic uses of photography make apparent the roles that photography plays in creating desire, memorializing events, and reifying commodities. Moreover, the constructed nature of traditional advertising photography has begun to break down with the rise of consumer-generated ads, snapshot aesthetics, and amateur campaigns.
I find it useful, when thinking about style and strategy, to acknowledge images’ representational power as both perfomative artifacts and bearers of meaning. This is not to suggest that there is only one trajectory or even a particular genealogy that one need privilege over another; rather it is to include strategic communication in all its guises within the realm of critical visual analysis, informed by an interdisciplinary lens. By going beyond disciplinary boundaries we gain insight into the myriad ways in which images work while focusing critical attention on strategic images, a profoundly pervasive form of visual culture.60
Jonathan Schroeder is the William A. Kern Professor in the College of Liberal Arts at Rochester Institute of Technology. He is the author of Visual Consumption, co-author of From Chinese Brand Culture to Global Brands: Insights from Aesthetics, Fashion and History, editor of Conversations on Consumption and co-editor of Brand Culture and The Routledge Companion to Visual Organization. He is editor of the interdisciplinary journal Consumption Markets & Culture.