Photography and Commercial Illustration


Elspeth H. Brown, ‘Photography and Commercial Illustration’ The Corporate Eye: Photography and the Rationalization of American Commercial Culture, 1884 – 1929, Studies in Industry and Society (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2005). 159-216


Advertising matured as a profession in response to a new problem for American business: how to stimulate demand among consumers for the machined cornucopia of standardised products filling the shelves of American retail establishments.

Whereas earlier advocates of American productive efficiency, such as the Gilbreths, had championed the use of photography in rationalising the working body in production, by the 1920s the influence of applied psychology  had reoriented managers towards an appreciation of the mind as the critical element of rationalised consumption.

As the profile of the implied consumer shifted from that of “rational man” to “irrational woman” in the years 1908-15, photography’s realist tendencies became a problem for a new school of advertisers seeking to harness the subjective for the benefit of corporate sales.


In 1920 the home economist and advertising adviser Christine Frederick attached percentage figures to a general portrait with which advertisers had been familiar for some time: ” Women buy 48 per cent of all drugs, 96 per cent of all dry goods, 87 per cent of raw and market foods, 48.5 per cent of hardware and home furnishings.” As the purchasers of most products, women were the advertisers’ target audience. As the twenties unfolded, new audiences came into view, such as the massive working-class female readership of bernarr Macfadden’s True Story magazine. But as Roland Marchand has convincingly argued, admen tended to collapse class distinctions into a composite portrait: the typical consumer was not only a woman but a lazy, emotional, stupid one at that.



Advertisements for canned food, cameras, corsets, and carriages increasingly used photography to show a product’s selling points in realist detail. Products were displayed with the crisp insistence of edge-to-edge focus; advertisers assumed that photography’s ability to reproduce the detail, formerly lost in, for example, wood engravings or pen-and-ink drawings would sell the customer on the product’s fine workmanship.


So long as advertising photography worked within a model of rational rather than emotional appeal, this lack of mystery (referred to elsewhere as “art”) was unproblematic; sharply focussed, barely composed, and blandly presented photographic records were considered superior instruments of visual persuasion for many products.


Photography’s value as the preferred medium of efficient rationality became a distinct problem when advertisers and psychologists began to shift their model of the typical consumer from “rational man” to “emotional woman” in the first decade of the century.


Most photographic advertisements lacked what Kodak and other advertising writers throughout the twenties called “human interest”. Human interest in advertising required a story about the product, usually depicted by human figures shown using or benefitting from the product.

In 1913, Kodak sought to move photographers toward the making of “pictures that gracefully and effectively tell a story”. To meet this goal, photographers needed to move past the straightforward depiction of products required for catalog illustration to the artistic suggestion of narrative within the still image of the advertisement.


C.B.Larrabee, discussing Kodak’s superior photographic advertisements, described what advertisers were looking for as “sincere naturalness”. Kodak’s ads “seldom suggest the photographic  studio, which is the big secret that the successful commercial photographers have learned. […]”

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