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Stock or Shlock?

Open any publication and you will see the influence of the art director. Like every other person with a job to do, they must justify their salary by adding their touch to the finished product. So movie film editors chop the cinematographers shots into a dizzying montage. TV sports directors never let the eye rest, even in a game like baseball where experienced fans like to see the entire infield at once so they watch the dynamics of the next play unfold.

In the print world it is the need to add editorial "illustrations" to stories which might otherwise have to stand on the words of the author alone. There, next to the article, is a photo of happy family resting on the lawn in front of their suburban home. Mom is kneeling on the grass with little Bobby and Betty leaning on her from either side. Slightly behind and above in smiling Dad. What's the article about? Have they just been evicted, is a nuclear power plant being built in their backyard, have they perfect teeth because they use the magic toothpaste? The picture doesn't say. It's a "stock" photo, purchased from an agency whose job is to supply pictures with no context. This way the same image can be used to illustrate any of the stories listed, or many others.

If a picture has no context and expresses no emotion what's the point? I can understand the desire to make the print page less dense and imposing, especially in this era of sound bites and 30 second spots, but then why not something really relevant? The motivation for using stock photos is time and money. Art directors can look through on line catalogs and select something they like in a few minutes and have it delivered to their production department ready to use in a few moments. The competition for stock has gotten so fierce that there are now "royalty free" images for which the user pays only for the CDROM holding the images. There are also sites selling near-free images which costs pennies for use.

What would a relevant image be? Well if there is a person mentioned in the story, showing them would be relevant. If a real place was mentioned this might be nice to see. Even if the story is non-specific there should be something more appropriate. The art director is not an expert on the topic, neither is the story editor, so why not have the author contribute or select illustrative material? At least they know the point of the article.

Personally every time I see a generic illustration in a magazine, all I think of is how that space could have been better used by making the story longer or by adding another instead.

The same art director-driven mentality infects TV news. Directors have decided that talking heads are dull (true). So they send "reporters" out into the field to be mobile talking heads, placed in front of an "actuality". But this is only satisfactory for a few moments as well. So as soon as the field reporter starts to talk their image is replaced by illustrative material. Suppose the story is on higher gas prices. You can be sure that you will be seeing a generic image of someone filling up their gas tank. What does this add to the story? Everyone knows what filling up a gas tank looks like. The directors of TV news have decided that every verb and noun that can be illustrated should be. In cases where there isn't enough footage (like a perp walk) they will slow it down or repeat it.

Just like the mindless stock photos, the cliched video footage adds nothing. In the case of the news it actually is detrimental. First, it distracts from the actually words being spoken, since the visual grabs our attention more. Second, those stories which don't have action verbs associated with them don't get reported on. Thus investigative reporting of government malfeasance or corporate crime is left to the newspapers. TV will only report on it when the story "breaks". That is there is a press conference by a DA or prosecutor and thus the possibilities of visuals of the government official as well as those being charged. No pictures, no story.

Classical music is another area where the visual director has superseded the content. On the rare occasions when a classical concert is filmed or broadcast one is bombarded with a continual stream of camera movements over, around and into the orchestra. Clever directors like to focus for a few seconds on the hands of player who might have a short solo (in case we can't hear the oboe without help). Orchestra and chamber music performances are aural experiences, many in the audience even close their eyes to better concentrate, but it doesn't make for "good TV".

The opera house is another case of the visuals becoming the attraction. In a recent case there were long articles about the unique scenery, but short mention of the actual music. Opera is supposed to be a multi-media experience, but the stage action is supposed to support the story which is also supported by the music. It is not supposed to be a platform for the stage director to show that he is earning his salary by being outrageous. Well, I guess it necessary to keep up with the times, where the typical rock show has laser shows, pyrotechnics and other special effects. Music videos seem to have evolved into a format where the pictures and the songs run in parallel, disconnected streams. This is probably appropriate since the point of the video is to sell the music and not as a stand alone offering. So the music plays while the video tries to grab the viewer's attention. Sometimes illustration makes sense, but more so in new media where the marriage is inherent in the offerings. Trying to overlay excessive or irrelevant visual material onto traditional offerings looks, and is, foolish.

Marshall McLuhan almost got it right. It is all media, there is no message.

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© 2006 Robert D Feinman