These digital visual environments, created en masse and with minimal effort, are imperceptibly changing the way we perceive the world. While advertising folk speak of reach and targeted communication, critics express concerns over the growing trend towards instagrammisation, in which users only select or seek out objects and places that look good in the colourful social media universe – be it the Eiffel Tower, a wintry landscape, or an array of brightly decorated cakes. The very definition of photogenic, after all, is a thing or person that looks attractive in photographs.1
Here, though, we are likely to ignore the fact that “photogenicness” is a purely photographic phenomenon. The way we use the word photogenic may frame it as a quality of the subject itself – something or someone is thus said to be photogenic – but, in reality, it has more to do with the ability to photograph something in a favourable way. In the case of portrait photography, sitter and photographer thus work together to create a carefully crafted image; a pretty face alone doesn’t necessarily result in an appealing photo. The sitter’s photogenicness – their attractiveness in the photograph – is thus dependent on various aspects of camera technology and photographic craft that help to show the subject in as good a light as possible. Factors such as aperture setting, exposure time, depth of field, angle, contrast, proportion, styling and pose all enable image-makers to shape the finished image – far more so, in fact, than any physical properties of the subject.
If we imagine a potential subject being designed so as to take into account the lighting, angle, and setting of a future photograph, then, under those precise conditions, it might look great. In a different context, however, it wouldn’t work at all. Its suitability as a photographic subject thus becomes obsolete as soon as you attempt to predetermine such suitability. And given that influencers need to generate authenticity via casual snapshots of all kinds of everyday situations, it’s important that objects lend themselves to being photographed in a wide range of different contexts. It would, therefore, be wise not to ignore the image-making possibilities and associated visual impacts that today’s technology affords. After all, they enable the look of a subject, unlike that of a real-life object, to be easily changed.
Where Image and Object Overlap
Indeed, it’s possible to achieve remarkable differences in an object’s visual impact simply by tweaking a few image-making parameters. Just compare the way a piece of IKEA furniture comes across in different photographs – in the catalogue images, say, and in Ebay listings. Here, lighting and arrangement play a key role in the impression the piece makes.
These days, our first impression of a real thing or place is invariably via visual media. When shopping online or planning a holiday, for instance, we almost always rely on photographs. Only much later via actual usage of the object or presence at the place do we gain additional sensory inputs that enable us to flesh out our impression of it.
Although this photographic dimension is created using real-world objects – a photographer can only capture what is in front of his lens when the shutter is pressed – the two differ greatly when it comes to sensory impressions. A photograph, after all, translates all sensory information into visual inputs as per the rules of the medium. It therefore not only serves as a substitute for the absent object, it also generates a whole new visual dimension. Close-ups, for instance, attempt to depict a subject’s surfaces and haptic properties. In advertising, images seek to trigger associations and link products to experiences, thus generating complex constructs that are part real-world object and part media creation. Interestingly, this duality results in overlaps that affect our perception of objects in everyday life.
Online shopping offers an illuminating example of the conflating of these two dimensions. When goods ordered online are unpacked, customers are often perplexed and even disappointed that the products don’t look the way they do in the photos. That’s hardly surprising, given that, online, photos not only perform a visual function, but also serve as a sort of contractual illustration. In other words, they are meant to define as accurately and objectively as possible the item being purchased – and show what the product is actually like. These roles, however, are contradictory: on the one hand, we treat such photos as reliable sources of information, seeing them as a suitable means of gleaning contractually relevant details; on the other hand, they are a separate, specifically visual dimension and hence fundamentally unsuited to faithfully conveying a product’s various sensory aspects and utility value. It is, therefore, as browsing aids that they best fulfil their role as supplementary media, attracting consumers’s attention with their visually striking images and showcasing the item’s attractiveness. Only when asked to provide purely visual impressions, and not expected to depict items as faithfully as possible, do photographs offer added value.
Renderings already do exactly that. They allow an object to be seen in ways that are not possible with conventional photography, or even via contemplation of the actual object. What’s more, their visualisations can develop entirely independently of the actual object; unlike a photograph, a rendering doesn’t require its subject to be present when the image is created.
In a 2015 promo clip for its Tech Book shopping app, Nike offered insights into the composition of one of its technical jackets. The film starts between the folds of a fabric, within which we see moisture rising. The jacket is then whisked past the camera and turned around so that the viewer sees the mesh-like reverse. Finally, we are taken into the lining of a finished jacket as worn by a model. This schematic rendering of the jacket and its construction opens up a new and distinct visual dimension that is disconnected from the item as sold, showing that images can adopt their own forms of presentation independent of their real-world subject.
To come back to photography, the very act of photographing or being photo-graphed blurs the line between real world and image world, with consequences for people’s everyday lives. In an article on the impact of instagrammisation published some time ago in the magazine supplement of German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, the author wrote about a group of young girls in a cafe wearing make-up that seemed totally out of place. It wasn’t, though, for the café setting that they’d painted their faces, but for the Instagram photos they were going to take.2 The two contexts clearly required different kinds of make-up; the girls, though, chose to prioritise how they would look in the pictures. From the photographs, they might seem skilfully styled but, at the clothing of the camera’s shutter, the context changes – from photographic portraiture to everyday cafe situation. And short of removing make-up every time it does, the only option is to accept being styled in a way that only looks right in photographs. Influencers even have to subject their entire day-to-day lives to such styling rigours.
In this constant stream of photography, we are gradually seeing recurring tropes emerge – and this, too, has consequences for our everyday lives. When certain objects are regularly photographed in similar ways, the image style establishes itself in our awareness and trends develop. By contrast, things that receive little or no media attention seem to also vanish from the real world. In an interview, the Michelin-starred chef Vincent Klink recently noted that goulash, his favourite dish, was disappearing from restaurant menus because it doesn’t look good in photographs. This “brown slop” that is “every food photographer’s nightmare”3 is apparently finding it difficult to compete with the various hipper, more colourful food trends out there. Just because goulash is hard to style, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s unphotogenic. After all, a subject’s appearance in photographs, as previously noted, depends on how it is styled, posed or framed. Without careful styling, steak would, for its part, be just another kind of brown lump, and yet it has, in recent years, enjoyed remarkable levels of media success, starring in countless tasteful shots courtesy of magazines, blogs and amateur food photographers. Such success, of course, breeds imitation and, in the process, we become accustomed to seeing and being shown things in a given way. Influencers in particular, people who often lack photographic training but who aim to strike a chord with the general public, tend to fall back on established tropes and existing practices, meaning we end up with just a few recurring image types. The chef and food photographer Silvio Knezevic takes a more pragmatic and innovative approach to styling goulash: you just have to offset the monotony of the stew and distract the eye with other things, such as pomegranate seeds or lemons.4 He thus uses food styling techniques to create images with eye-catching contrasts, thereby applying the time-honoured principles of design theory to a modern media problem. For a restaurant, meanwhile, social media coverage attracts visitors and makes it easy for them to recreate pictures of the food, which in turn helps to perpetuate a trend. With the aid of social media, image tropes can establish themselves in the blink of an eye – it’s never been easier for trends to spread.
The Creation of an Image-Based Reality
Depicting things as they are – it sounds simple enough, yet it turns out to be an impossible undertaking. Influencers at least manage to effortlessly create an authentic picture of their everyday lives – except that, here, the yardstick for what is authentic is not real life but an image-based reality. That reality has become part of many different objects – and has long since begun to impinge on the material world.
Today, there is barely a single object that doesn’t have a digital double. In situations where photos serve as stand-ins for absent objects, we find media-based impressions gradually taking the place of actual physical perception and reality thus being replaced with a representation. Around 60 years ago, Günther Anders was already talking about a reality that would be generated via reproductions.5 The proof of a real-world object, though, is in its usage. Neither it nor the sensory impressions it engenders can be replaced by image-based reproductions; image-makers can only translate them into a purely visual language. Acknowledging this autonomous visual dimension, this alternative reality, and learning to differentiate it from the object itself will be a key challenge as we go forward.
After all, with their constant photo-taking, influencers are shaping and changing the world of photography, affecting what we see and, above all, how we see it. In the process, apparently styling-resistant subjects such as bowls of goulash are being sidelined by prevailing stylistic tropes and fading from our consciousness, even if they haven’t yet disappeared entirely. And influencers themselves, in order to stay on trend, are now limited by their own self-created styling conventions. They are, in short, influenced by their own influence. Only by honing their craft and offering new takes can they escape its power. A fresh perspective from outside is often the key to seeing things in a different and ideally more real light.
Julia Mederus graduated in design studies from Burg Giebichenstein University of Art and Design in Halle, writing her thesis on photogenicness in product photography. Her primary interest is media-based representations of design and visual communication.
1 See en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/photogenic
(last checked on 16 May 2019).
2 See Michalis Pantelouris, Ich, verbesserlich, in Süddeutsche
Zeitung Magazin, 19 September 2016, p. 37.
3 Vincent Klink in Björn Springorum, Essen fotografieren verboten! Was sagen
Stuttgarter Köche dazu?, in Stuttgarter Nachrichten, 1 April 2019, p. 19.
4 Silvio Knezevic in Milena Carstens, Ilka Piepgras, Manchmal garen wir
mit dem Heißluftföhn nach, in Zeit Magazin, 17 April 2019, p. 24.
5 Günther Anders, Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen 1. Über die Seele im Zeitalter
der zweiten industriellen Revolution, Munich: C.H. Beck, 2002, p. 181.