Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Billboard backs

I like Stephen Gill’s photographs. One of his books is called A Book of Field Studies, after those Observer guides produced between the 1940s and 1980s on subjects like Birds, Pond Life, European Costume or Cacti and Other Succulents. He applies the same patiently scholarly approach to his studies of mundane phenomena like road works and cashpoint machines. This is a simple but beautiful idea: he photographs the backs of advertising billboards, which usually look out onto unglamorous settings like railway tracks, car parks or breaker’s yards, and then puts a caption underneath the photograph which is the advertising copy that’s on the other side, the side you’re supposed to see. So some uninviting image of urban grunge is accompanied by words like this:

Free texts when you join Orange. Pay as you go.

No need to keep the receipt. A diamond is forever.

Welcome to Marlboro Country. Smoking when pregnant harms your baby.

L’Oreal Paris. Because you’re worth it.

Turn the key. Start a revolution. Mazda.

The misfit between the image and the caption seems to capture the historical unevenness of daily life, the way that our mundane existences lag behind more spectacular transformations. For the French theorist Henri Lefebvre the everyday is as a kind of ‘residual deposit’ which lags behind the more glamorous, accelerated experiences of contemporary society, a ‘great, disparate patchwork’ that modernity ‘drags in its wake’.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘The temporality of the everyday is drowned out by the silence of the ordinary.’ – Susan Stewart

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