Friday, June 01, 2007

Stock photography

I just received a shipment of books by mail (will someone please divest me of my evil credit card?) and after greedily tearing away the strip that lets the box unfold to reveal your books in all their unread glory I thought briefly that there’d been a mistake in my order – two of the books had the same cover. Compare:

I'm wary of how this is the image for 'female television viewer'. It’s reproducing the same ideal and idealized female audience that feminist cultural commentary often wants to expose as a pervasive and loaded construction. Out of all the stock images, I get why this one is used, just as I get why chick lit covers are daubed in pink and glitter and high-heels. It's a shorthand for the audience the publisher wants to create; they want women to see themselves, imagine themselves, as such a woman – affluent, white, sassy who will watch what she wants when she wants to and will make her own meanings in the face of institutional, economic, and narrative logics. It’s easier to market to ‘women’ when you can subsume their diversity and divergences under such an apolitical avatar.
Prime time television is all about such women. But its audience and its critics look decidedly different. The breadth of contemporary feminist media criticism is astonishing and inspiring… I wish its iconography could capture that spirit, rather than reiterating the stock imagery that is proving so problematic in the first place.


Blogger AJ said...

Or maybe it was because the overworked, underpaid designer did both covers and assumed they could amortize their costs on purchasing the first one.

for non-designers, stock photography basically falls into two classes, royalty-free, which is relatively cheap and you run the risk that someone else will use the same image, and rights-managed, which is an order of magnitude more expensive, but allows you to reserve rights for an image within a particular industry. After that, of course, is custom photo shoots.

I get the feeling that academic publishers don't have the budget for anything greater than royalty-free images, hence the duplication. I really don't think more thought was given to it beyond, 'eye-catching, has a mary-tyler-moore / emma-peel-esque woman and a tv in it'. There's lots, and i mean LOTS, of duller pics of people sitting on couches with remotes to choose from.

side note: those are two of the worst covers ever, from a layout / typography view, but that's a different subject...

12:34 AM  
Blogger andrea said...

“I really don't think more thought was given to it beyond, 'eye-catching, has a mary-tyler-moore / emma-peel-esque woman and a tv in it'.”
This is precisely my point, what I mean when I say I know why this picture was not only chosen but made accessible in the first place: for its congruency with entrenched ideas of ‘strong, independent woman.’ I'm not accusing the designer of deliberately thinking “What’s the best picture to reinforce current gender norms in the interests of marginalizing women and perpetuating stereotypes?” but rather pointing to how these shorthands exist across all sorts of visual cultures, and how this circulation of the same set of images and associations constrains our ability to conceptualize what a strong, independent woman actually is.
These two covers struck me as a perfect instance of just how limited our repertoire is – on multiple levels, by multiple factors. I don’t think it’s an either/or situation, but an illustration (har har) of how representational norms move throughout our media environment – the royalty-free-ness of this image both reinforces and adds to its currency, so that, just like you say, not much thought actually needs to be given.
As for the design itself, well, not everyone is lucky enough to have a keenly intuitive aesthete in their corner to school them in the history of layout and typography… :)

11:30 AM  
Blogger AJ said...

Granted, yes, it does create a limited repertoire. Thank goodness for user-created stock photography, such as; you do tend to find more interesting images there and (bonus) they're not expensive. Plus you can earn credits by uploading your own work, helping to expand the pool of diverse images.

That said, thinking as a book editor, visual shorthand works...because it works. This particular image seems more retro than strong to me, so I wouldn't have chosen it personally; I'd have commissioned an original piece of illustration.

Even then, one can't resist tweaking pre-existing imagery: a take on Rosie the Riveter with remote in hand, for example, would be simultaneously "recognizable" and "different" once observed more closely. As a book cover it'd have more weight, it'd be "cleverer," a better advertisement for itself.

Which is why I sometimes admire French book publishers, who seem comfortable using plain white covers with simple text titles and nothing else!

2:40 PM  

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