“Incomming…!”: The New Language of Photography?

Photography writers and critics are often chastised  – not always without good reason – for using unnecessarily complicated language. David Hurn concludes his invaluable book On Being a Photographer with one such scathing (and amusing) attack. I’ve been intrigued recently by the more vernacular language around photography. In On Photography, Sontag writes about how adverts for cameras (in the 1970s, I guess) wrote about these machines as if they were ray guns from outer space. She also writes about how out on safari, the camera has replaced the trophy hunter’s rifle; film instead of cartridges being loaded into the magazines… [1]

There are plenty of military / armament terms that overlap with photography. Somebody asked me once; “what are you packing these days”. Instinctively I told him what camera I had, but I wish I’d replied with something like: “Hmm let me see – I usually travel with my AK-, but I like to keep a vintage Browning in my pocket, and I never go anywhere without a few ninja stars, just in case.”

I recently discovered that ‘bracketing’ actually describes the process in artillery of finding a range by firing shells deliberately longer and shorter of a target, or something like that. The term ‘bombardment’ has become the great cliché to describe the ineffable stream of images that seep into our daily lives. Whilst it’s true that sometimes we can’t escape photographic imagery, it’s a fantastically exaggerated expression, which anyone who has actually experienced being under shellfire I’m certain would take an exception to. (I’m happy to say I’m not one of those people.) But the way in which we use words to describe things matters and according to Freud and his writing on the uncanny, they can reveal the true meaning of something and how it relates to our unconscious [2]. In which case, I’d like to examine what the implications might be of the phrases uttered by Cheryl Cole (nee. Tweedy) in the recent campaign by L’Oreal for their latest foundation product.

This ad is a good example of the kind of imagery that we are supposedly “bombarded” with: the kind of imagery that simultaneously manages to make women feel insecure about their appearance and enslave the weaker-minded male of the species. Personally I think men and women are smarter than that, however, the language used here is troubling. The connection that is made between the quality of ones skin and its representative image: “pixel perfect your skin…” (which could be a synonym for “Photoshop your skin”) sounds pretty creepy; blurring the distinction between the digital pixel and the organic. This phrase seems at odds with ideas of outer and inner beauty that cosmetic giants like L’Oreal presumably wish to be associated with.

Whilst most of us are more than happy to have a zit or a stray nostril hair airbrushed from the odd portrait, this solution sounds a bit like a kind of ‘app’ that might be overlaid on oneself like some odious smartphone special effect filter. Cole leaves us with “look photo ready from every angle” which perhaps is meant to be an aspirational command. (“You can look as good as a singer/model/game show hostess / whatever like me with this slap on your mug.”) Perhaps the phrase and the ad ironically summarises the myth of beauty / glamour / celebrity photography: “photo ready” – ready to be photographed – prepared and moulded for the camera and its monocular, Albertian perspectival point-of-view.

This week saw the Oxford English Dictionary editors nominate the word ‘selfie’ as their ‘word of the year’ [3]. Whilst it is a little tragic that something as narcissistic as the selfie is so ubiquitous that it has transcended the cult and entered mainstream verbal currency, it underscores what a diverse and relevant field of study photography is. Perhaps the rise of the selfie, and the phrases used in the L’Oreal ad, point to a new direction for the vernacular language of photography. How long will it be until photography is no longer discussed with terms that relate to guns, hunting and killing, but the self, sex and appearance?


[1] SONTAG S. (1977) On Photography. New York: Fararr, Straus & Giroux. Pp.12 – 15.

[2] Sigmund Freud [1919] (2003) The Uncanny. London: Penguin Books. pp.123 – 162

[3] http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/press-releases/oxford-dictionaries-word-of-the-year-2013/ (last accessed 23.11.13)