Aesthetic purity

The value of ad stills photography

There is something very satisfying when I see one of my images used in an ad campaign. Especially when it is printed large. In the pre-COVID world, I photographed multiple ad campaigns for government. Earlier this year, I returned to ad stills photography. In all cases, photographing the ad campaigns was part of a video production.

“Is there any category of photography less aesthetically pure than the film publicity still? Made by photographers working on film sets, they are rarely considered in the study of either photography or cinema.”

David Campany, On Photo–Graphs

In many ways, capturing stills as part of a commercial video production is similar to capturing publicity stills. The point is capture the essence of the movie or ad campaign in one image.

In the case on onset stills photography for an ad production, the photos are captured alongside of the video recording (and is very secondary to the video production) or in a short five-minute window before the set is struck and the production moves on. Ideally, one gets to make photos during the video recording and afterwards, thereby increasing the chances of capturing something useful.

Having worked on set for many ad campaigns as a stills photographer, I have worked in both ways. Neither is ideal, however both can produce good results.

The quote above is from an essay by David Campany, who continues, “In different ways, film-still photographers and photojournalist have to solve the same two problems: visual clarity and narrative stillness. Film stills do it through the group effort of staging in a controlled situation… By contrast, the photojournalist relies on quick reactions and the speed of their equipment. Where the film still restates motion as stillness, photojournalism uses fast shutter speeds to freeze it. Both seek to secure detail and master time.” Campany infers that photojournalism is a “purer” form of photography.

Campany concludes his essay about a particular publicity still, where two actors have been composited with a background image that includes all of the other actors, by writing “The narrative of the film has been compressed so that they are all there for us at once. We can look around the picture at our own pace.” It is a photograph not so much from the film, but of the film, as a whole. Much as an ad still is not from the ad campaign, but rather it is a photo of the campaign.

I have introduced Campany’s writing to illustrate that we put different value on different types of photography. This is inevitable, since we value things that we consider true (photojournalism) and devalue things we consider false (advertising). However, I know from photographing government events, and from working along side photojournalists, that those photos are not necessarily purer or truer than other types of images. Photographers choose what and how to capture an image, thereby influencing a viewer’s perception of the events captured. Whereas photos that appear in ads, or publicity stills for that matter, clearly were made for one purpose, to influence viewers. They may be captured in a way to make them look “real,” but they are always created to shape a viewer’s perception. And I believe that we are all visually sophisticated enough to realize that.

While ad stills may never be considered ”aesthetically purity,” I value the work and the results. Particularly when I see it printed large.

Images captured for a recent ad campaign.

Childcare campaign images captured in 2019 and one of the images currently on a bus shelter.

NB: David Campany is well worth reading, no matter where you find his work. Ad images were captured over multiple years with a variety of Fujifilm X and GFX cameras.

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