The Critical Approach

The critical approach to photographic images allows us to see below the surface or beyond the superficial. The photography used in advertising can be an obvious place to begin when learning to take a critical approach to imagery. How the image is used having been carefully constructed to market to an audience, persuasively in respect of the product the company is selling can make for an interesting analysis.
Judith Williamson’s Advertising articles in Source (WilliamsonJudithSourceApplePage1 WilliamsonJudithSourceApplePage2) have provided a criticism of a distributed advert which she writes about with consideration of the visual language used,  the written language of the advertisement’s text, the cultural positioning of the advertisement and not only how the ad has been put together, but how the ad can be pulled apart by theoretical analysis that considers much wider implications than the ad creators would wish their audience to engage with.
One of Judith Williamson’s articles considers an advertisement created for and on behalf of Apple. The ad presents the Apple tablet as a design utopia; where Apple having seen beyond the limited aspirations of many companies have produced something which is presented as more than a tool, more than design, more than leading-edge for the early adopter, but an essential life altering and somewhat spiritual accompaniment to any of us. It would appear as almost lifelike in its abilities, that it will help us as we try to progress in society.
Yet the contrast between the image, the ad, and the truth is stark as Williamson points out. Apple have been exposed as having workers who are not based in California, the wealthy American state where many technological developments seem to originate but in China. There have been “scandals about the hours and conditions of employees at Foxconn,”(a manufacturer for Apple) and “the human rights watchdog China Labour Watch accused Pegatron of employing underage staff, demanding a 66-69 hour week, and making pregnant women work 11 hour days six days a week” (Pegatron is another manufacturer for Apple), ( WilliamsonJudithSourceApplePage2)
The combination of the photograph and the text has told us a story, has possibly engaged an audience, has most likely contributed to the brand image – and sold product.
Liz Wells considers the use of photography that “challenges traditional boundaries,” (P. 206, Photography a Critical Introduction) within the campaigns run by Benetton. Toscani , the photographer who brought the images of the ‘United Colours of Benetton’ to 1980s advertising helped elevate Benetton’s export sales from 26% of total sales to 40% of total sales. The striking images appeared to have a message about something more than the label of the jumper we might buy in a wide range of colours but had an art type feel and an inclusive rather than sales boosting message. I liked the images as an adolescent; the label’s perfume was bought for me as a gift. I didn’t notice how I had been marketed to even if I wasn’t the target demographic.
The truth of photography is important. To learn how to see or to read an image can be more easily learned when we start by looking at advertising images. And from here we can apply the same principles of looking beneath the surface to any image – and also reverse the process to consider carefully how we might build our planned construction of an image rather than constructing instinctively and not really knowing why.
Wells, L. (2003) Photography a Critical Introduction, Routledge Taylor and Francis Group London and New York.