On Visual Fluency
“Maybe each of these activities (listening to high end audio gear, drinking high end wine, having needles inserted into your chakras) is really about ritualizing a sensory experience. By putting on headphones you know are high quality, or drinking expensive wine, or entering the chiropractor’s office, you are telling yourself, “I am going to focus on this moment. I am going to savor this.” It’s the act of savoring, rather than the savoring tool, that results in both happiness and a longer life.” -Anxious Machine
1. Why we love to take pictures
On the way to the airport, an Uber driver told me the story of a 12-day road trip he took with his daughter. At every stop they made sure to pick up a handful of dirt and stash it in a plastic bag. Death Valley, Grand Canyon, the Rockies, Central Park — by the end of the trip they had around 50 bags of dirt, which they layered in a tall glass container — a geologic timeline of their trip across the country.
The part of the story I loved the most was that during their tour of Kentucky Downs, while the guide explained to the group why the dirt there was so expensive, the daughter created a distraction and her father reached over the fence and grabbed a handful of the track for their collection. The very act of acquiring the dirt overshadowed any description of the famous track the dirt came from. This perfectly encapsulates humanity’s use of photography to ritualize visual experience. On a primal level, this is why we love to take pictures.
In the last week I photographed my kids at the beach, my mom having a cocktail, a memorable meal, flowers blooming and a beautiful sunset, among other things. It’s the act of taking a photo of the sunset (savoring), rather than the sunset itself (the savoring tool), that results in happiness. Ritualizing a visual experience is the most powerful way to appreciate the moment. Why? By taking a picture, you are literally and figuratively telling yourself “I am going to focus on this moment. I am going to savor this.”
And with the press of a button, you DO savor it! And not only does this ritual mainline an experiential love of the moment, it extends out into feelings of accomplishment, the aesthetic beauty in representation, the joy you get in community, in sharing with friends and family, the selfish accumulation of “likes” and the option to revisit the picture at a later date in time as a shortcut for and more precise creation of memory — all of these are ways of expanding the visual experience so that it is bigger than just one moment of sunset. Like layered dirt in a glass container, the act of photography IS the moment. Amplified, hallowed, the ultimate savoring of the things that bring us joy. Which is to say:
Certain things can bring us joy, but not as much as when we take pictures of them.
2. Your favorite photo sucks
A few years ago an unnamed brand shared some of their newest photography with my agency team. It was going to be dropped into a layout that was headed to the supermarket shelf. They said how much they liked it, and how it had been so cheap to produce. Here they were congratulating themselves…
…and all we could see was how the pictures looked 10 years old. The light, the styling — everything about them looked horribly dated. But what disturbed me the most is that I didn’t have a great way to articulate to the client why it mattered so much.
“Your taste in photography sucks and it’s killing your brand” was probably too aggressive.
Brands have always been visual — especially today — but they are stumbling over this new language. Especially because, as an asset, great imagery is expensive to produce and difficult to manage over time. Photos are almost like a helicopter — they need 4 hours of maintenance for every hour of production. Multiply that times 10,000 outtakes from a single shoot, complicated metadata and usage rights, and outdated library management — it’s a mess if you don’t go in with a system. And even then, it is overwhelming.
The iPhone was introduced in 2007, but that year was also the tipping point in the commercial photo industry — all the pros I knew were finally starting to make the transition from film to digital. Sure, there were some early adopters — but up until then you had to take out a mortgage on a digital medium format camera. Finally the SLRs were finally good enough, and anyways all the color labs were going out of business.
At that time Liz Mathews (currently Managing Director at LPK) was the Photo Director at Bon Appetit. Back then I was a photo agent and she used to hire some of the food stylists I represented. The magazine was undergoing a massive redesign — for photography. The writing, the columns, everything was staying the same except for the pictures.
Before the redesign, a typical Bon Appetit magazine story borrowed heavily from Martha Stewart, which was borrowing heavily from Donna Hay. After the redesign, the photography was more masculine, messy and irreverent. But more importantly, it was a signature style that heralded a new era of food porn. The lesson was simple: change the imagery, and you change the perception of the brand.
3. The Visual Vernacular
10 years later, the March 2016 issue was shot entirely on iPhones by the regular contributors. Everyone I spoke to about shooting it said it was a real struggle, because the photographers were trying to emulate their normal style of technical shooting with an iPhone. But that’s not the point — the real revelation is that cameras are so miniaturized and ubiquitous that they have taken over the expression of food culture. Magazines used to lead, but now they have been left in the dust by a growing, decentralized conversation. At least they still have their brand identities…
In this photo by Nicole Franzen, there are a lot of things going on. First, what the image itself communicates. “I want you to know that I appreciate savoring this cup of coffee, and care very much about the aesthetics of how I present it.” Second — location information, where this coffee was made and what that signals. And third, the comment itself, which sarcastically states ‘So I guess taking photos of coffee is a thing,’ referencing the glut of coffee pictures on Instagram, an awareness of the trend, and a feeling of ‘it’s a cliché but I still love it.’
We are down the rabbit hole of a visual culture that is full to the brim of meaning and lively conversation. These people are visually literate — they read and have an inherent understanding of imagery.
Visual Fluency: inundated in media, we are increasingly adept at understanding, speaking, and identifying powerful (or weak) imagery, worldwide.
Nicole was one of the first to make the transition from Instagram to a commercial career. 200k followers for being a storyteller with a great eye, a Metrocard and an iPhone. The first time I met her she was looking for advice on how to become a ‘professional photographer.’ The funny thing is, she had already gotten there on her own — not through assisting, not through school — purely through the initial 100% organic reach on Instagram.
I feel like this chart is ridiculously understated, because most of those active Twitter users are robots. There was a study last year that said 67% of Taylor Swift’s Twitter followers were bots. But when Instagram purged fake accounts, she lost less than 4.5%. So the trend would be even more pronounced if you only count real people.
It’s a ridiculous amount of images, but only if you are thinking about pictures as ‘pictures’. From an article by Ben Rosen on watching his little sister Snapchat:
“I would watch in awe as she flipped through her snaps, opening and responding to each one in less than a second with a quick selfie face. She answered all 40 of her friends’ snaps in under a minute.”
People are not sharing pictures in the normal sense — they are using snaps as text messages. Half of all comments on Instagram are emoji. We’ve hacked our communication to speaking fluidly in visuals:
We’re commenting on pictures, with pictures.
3. Fancy Cameras
This year alone the world will take 2 trillion pictures. There’s an oft-repeated stat: in just a few years, 6 billion people will have smartphones. So if every smartphone has a camera — a really, really nice camera — what are the implications?
This image is from a Nokia Lumia campaign — the campaign was unique in that it truly emphasized the quality as the camera as the primary selling point of the phone, an approach to advertising devices that today is ubiquitous. National Geographic photographer Stephen Alvarez told me how when he took the image back to the Microsoft engineers who were perfecting the sensor, and they thought it was fake. It was beyond even what they thought was possible. The sensors are high end but with a great eye, the pictures transcend the technology. Stephen’s newest project is around how we can more deeply experience art beyond just photography — in its original location.
Björn Wallander normally shoots with an Arca Swiss — one of the most precise and custom cameras in existence. Over the last couple of years Björn shot 25% of the covers of Architectural Digest with that camera, and over lunch we were laughing about the fact that he shot the back cover with his phone. Apple’s biggest campaign has been running since 2014 — and if ‘Shot on iPhone’ is good enough for billboards today, what will it be like in 2020?
“The devices we use to produce things are also the devices we use to communicate, and that’s a dangerous combination.”
He was speaking to the element of distraction — but it neatly explains why images continue to be of higher and higher quality, of resolution AND taste. The devices we use to take pictures are also the devices we use to communicate, and that’s awesome.
4. A universal language
Every year I travel to India, and in 2014 I was walking with my 2 young kids when an older man stopped and asked if he could take a picture of us. A few days later, another Indian family asked if they could take our picture — again and again, it must have happened a total of 7 times that trip! One woman even asked to hold my daughter on her lap. That’s when it hit me: the year before, no one had camera phones, and all of a sudden almost everyone had them. Instant adoption, to the point where even the poorest prioritize a smartphone over other basic necessities. This is finally a global language of change — finding empathy and shared experience through images.
One trend we see from the agency side: if a brand is trying to expand regionally or globally, phones are already there before their products or services. That digital moment of truth happens before companies have even had an opportunity to localize. And in almost every case, brand imagery (good or bad) will be universally understood, even without translation.
In the past, companies didn’t have much of a choice— if you wanted to run a full-page ad in American Vogue, you’d have to pay Mario Testino 300k per day plus production expenses, and then you’d have to purchase the placement, maybe for another 70k. For a single issue with a circulation of what, 1 million? How many of those copies even sold? And of people who bought the magazine, how many even stopped on that page? And how much time did they spend on it?
Now Michael Kors, one of the earliest brands to take social media seriously, has 8.5 million Instagram followers. They can invest the money to reach that many people, a few times a day, track the best pictures that garner the most engagements, and continually refine their approach. Not only does MK never compromise on imagery, they are constantly leveraging metrics to improve the way photography works for them. A stream of professionally shot + styled images that are viewed multiple times a day by millions of people. And most of those people follow similar accounts. What does that do to our taste level, for photography?
One way to get a sense of this shift is by looking at a large dataset, like 5.5 photos sold per second. I asked Keren Sachs, director of content development at Shutterstock, if consumers were becoming more visually fluent:
…consumers are much more savvy and easily recognize high quality imagery which puts a higher demand on the need for thoughtful imagery. The higher the quality of an image, the more opportunity it has to stop someone in their tracks and force them to pause and consider it.
A big area of SSTK’s growth has been in the high-quality space with offerings like Offset, a collection that highlights individual artists and professionally shot imagery. It’s the de-commoditization of stock photography, or put another way, the commoditization of high quality imagery in response to buyers’ demands. It’s a worldwide trend directly resulting from humanity’s new visual fluency.
In his classic short story on cartography, Jorge Luis Borges described an empire that loved cartography so much that they created a map that was the size of a city, and then an entire province:
In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it.
This is exactly what we are producing with our ubiquitous cameras — visuals that are a map of the human experience. Except that this map is several orders of magnitude larger than our possible attention, to the point where we could never fully explore it, not in several lifetimes. At the end of the Borges story, the empire saw that the map was ultimately useless and let it wither away.
“ In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.”
We’ve living that rapid transition from photography as a product to photography as a language. From 1000 words to 40 snaps a minute. And it’s more than just efficient — it gets us closer and closer to letting go of the concept of the map, and truly living in the moment.
Words speak to the head, and images speak to the heart.
Special thanks to Liz Mathews, Rebecca Huffman, Mike Augustine and Nathan Hendricks for their contributions to this piece.