Rick Poynor’s Observer: Picture This

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The Unwritten History of Graphic Designers and Photography

The relationship between photography and graphic design receives much less attention than we might expect. After all, photography is fundamental to graphic design, as it has been since the latter was formulated as a professional practice. The 1920s modernist concept of the “typophoto,” which underpins graphic communication, enthusiastically embraced the possibilities of photographic imagery and meaning. Yet I can’t think of a single book-length study that has addressed this relationship over the ensuing decades, in historical or theoretical terms. When I proposed such a survey to a design-book publisher a few years ago, I received the publishing equivalent of a blank stare. The editors really didn’t get it.

As a consequence, an equally fascinating subset of the design/photography relationship also goes unexamined: the use that graphic designers have made of the camera. Photography historians and critics have barely noticed that this genre exists; that’s perhaps not unreasonable, since design isn’t their subject. On the other side, design historians and critics have tended to note only in passing when particular graphic designers took photographs, without attempting a unified investigation of designers as photographers.

Graphic designers’ pictures tend to move in nearer to their alphabetic quarry, suppressing the surrounding scene in order to concentrate attention on the intricacies and relationships of the letterforms.

In 2009, a collection of graphic designers’ photographs was published—Stefan G. Bucher’s The Graphic Eye (Chronicle Books)—but, disappointingly, it was a missed opportunity. After three perfunctory pages of introductory text, the volume becomes a structureless portfolio of pictures submitted by contemporary graphic designers, mostly American, with a few from other countries. (It’s hard to be precise because the book doesn’t give their nationalities.) The underlying idea, as presented by Bucher, is no more illuminating than that a bunch of design colleagues have taken some photos. But of course! Almost everyone takes photos. On this basis, we might collect pictures taken by chiropractors, librarians, or traffic cops. There is nothing to distinguish designers’ snaps of cute puppies, people relaxing on a beach, or a woman posing in her underwear from anyone else’s snaps.

Looking at the book again—I reviewed it dismissively in a magazine when it was published—I can see that, with much tighter picture editing, there’s an interesting collection struggling to get out. More than half of the photos could go, reducing the impression of clutter and leaving only the stronger, more distinctive, and truly personal contributions. These should be bigger, with fewer to a page, like the magnificent spread composed of four distorted TV close-ups (ranting right-wingers, if I’m not mistaken) shot by Rick Valicenti. Even then, we would be left with the question of what characteristics, if any, set good photos by graphic designers apart from other competently shot pictures. Are there particular concerns, or subjects, or ways of seeing?


It’s useful here to recall the kinds of photographs taken by the modernist pioneers of graphic design and the uses they made of them. The central importance of photography for the Dutch architect turned graphic designer Piet Zwart can be seen from his letterhead, which listed his concerns as “advertising / typography / photography / photomontage.” Zwart’s pictures, often for application in his own designs, showed beautifully composed details of soapsuds, wood shavings, aerial masts, telex punch tape, woven fabrics, porcelain insulators, factory chimneys, and machine parts. His subject matter was human activity and manufacturing rather than people themselves, and this inclined him, later, to underestimate pictures taken for a practical purpose. “We were not primarily reportage photographers,” he said in 1948. “We did not give a picture of the times, which obviously devalued our achievements.” It probably wasn’t possible then to see that these pictures, too, would one day become revealing documents, or that their formal qualities as object studies or still lifes gave them value. The pictures’ concern with structure, pattern,repeated elements, and graphic effect clearly betray the eye of the architect-designer when we look at them now.

It would be overstating the case to suggest that only designers could have taken photographs of this kind. Yet the fascination with things, shapes, surfaces, and textures rather than with people has always seemed a recurrent characteristic of designers’ photographs, which are often a meditation on objects. This can be seen most decisively in designers’ shots of lettering and typography they found in the street; there can be few in the field who have never taken this kind of photo when confronted by a spectacularly memorable old sign or a peculiar specimen of gnarled vernacular handiwork. By the 1960s, committed designer-photographers such as Robert Brownjohn and Herbert Spencer—Spencer had a darkroom at home—were regularly documenting lettering in the street in their black-and-white photos. In 2000, Edward Fella published Letters on America, a book of Polaroids of letterforms on signs, storefronts, and windows, all taken on his road trips. These cacophonous conflations might look random at a glance, but everything in each shot is just where Fella wanted it to be: “The pictures are deliberately, precisely, composed.”

Where graphic designers’ pictures differ from those of other street photographers, whose panoramic street scenes naturally also show signs, is that they tend to move in nearer to their alphabetic quarry, suppressing the surrounding scene in order to concentrate attention on the intricacies and relationships of the letterforms. Only a designer, or at least someone who took an unusually close interest in the expressive properties of type, would be motivated enough to single out this kind of subject repeatedly as an object worthy of consideration. There are some routine examples in The Graphic Eye; there ought to be a lot more. This kind of picture—designers’ archives must contain many thousands of them—is a product of both a full-time graphic awareness and sensibility, and a purposefully attuned typographic eye.

The other point to make about such scenes is that they fall naturally into series. One lettering photograph on its own, particularly when it’s a close-up, isn’t necessarily enough. There need to be other, similar pictures to make meaningful comparisons of stylistic and spatial nuance. Fella’s project can be read as one gigantic taxonomical undertaking, finally given coherent shape in his book (though many pictures had to be left out). Many photographers prefer to work in series these days, and designers are no exception, with the visual rhythms of individual shots unrolling across sequences of thematically linked pictures. With Bucher, it’s airplane wings seen from the pressurized cabin; with Marian Bantjes, bland hotel rooms; Paul Sahre, chewing-gum splats on the Manhattan sidewalk.

The number of contemporary graphic designers who pursue photography with dedication remains small, though that doesn’t make ambitious work any less significant. Rudy VanderLans made his name as the editor, publisher, and designer of Emigre magazine and as the co-owner of the Emigre type foundry. As a self-publisher, he produced books featuring his own photographs, and in 2001, with Gingko Press, he published Supermarket, a collection not of grocery-store portraits but of locations he visited while driving out to the Mojave
Desert. Within the series, he organizes pictures into clusters: palms, gas stations, mailboxes, roadside signs, the open road, and abandoned single-story buildings, each shot from the same angle. VanderLans’s photobook has a cinematic momentum, and the scorched, emptied out, evenly lit pictures evoke an atmospheric sense of place—a place where, once again, people are an unseen presence, perceived only indirectly, by their interventions in the landscape.

VanderLans’s pictures raise anew the question of where the designer’s photograph sits in relation to the broader currents of photographic practice. Should it be considered as part of that history? The photography world often revisits and admits into the growing canon of historically significant photography vernacular forms of practice previously seen as marginal to the medium as an art form: the jobbing portrait, the industrial photograph, the food photograph, the medical photograph, and so on—all taken by anonymous professionals. The graphic designer’s photograph, found anywhere on the spectrum between functional application and intensely personal authorship, presents a pressing case for inclusion in this canon.