To continue our trend briefing on Conceptual imagery, there was one man we needed to talk to – illustrator Stephen Collins whose Guardian cartoons visualise shifting social nuances, and whose new book plays with visual concepts around the ‘beard’
Stephen Collins makes me laugh. Just once a week. On a Saturday morning, in The Guardian. Collins is a kind of visual sociologist, attuned to the nuances, subtleties and minute shifts in our culture and behaviour who then plays them out with gentle and absurd humour. Like most young illustrators nowadays, he’s multi-skilled: a cartoonist; graphic novelist; creates single-panel images.
We met recently at the Association of Illustrators 2013 Illustration Awards judging, Collins was casting his eye over the Editorial category and we were both admiring the focus of the shortlisted work by illustrator James Fryer. This business image (below) pictured the endless trudge of the ‘road warrior’, the business traveller whose task is like a modern version of the Greek myth of Sisyphus – pushing the boulder uphill – it never ends.
As a viewer you get the idea so quickly, the seasonal cycle of the trees, the man in the macintosh pulling his suitcase behind him. It’s a little narrative in a bubble of thought – a conceptual image. Collins responded to the illustrator’s ability to get the idea over in so few steps, which is the skill in this art form. The illustrator, or photographer needs to commit to a severe edit.
With clients including The Times, Wall Street Journal, BBC , Deutsche Bank, Wired, The Guardian and GQ I was keen to hear more about Collins’ take on conceptual image-making, on his own experience of it and where he thinks it is going.
He has a wonderful feel for the conventions of image-makers, displayed here in this funny and oddly sad cartoon about a character trapped in the visual forms of ‘Business imagery’. I asked him about some recent trends in this kind of visual space.
There’s a slice of Conceptual imagery that doesn’t change, and there’s a slice of it that emerges at a moment in time?
Looking at how people’s ideas of their own time change, in these shorthand images, is really interesting I think. There was definitely a shift about 10 years ago for example, where you suddenly had lots of little people forming bigger things all the time. You saw it in these adverts for banks, Halifax I think – that ‘group fun’ advertising with people standing on each others’ shoulders or collectively engaged in some fun symbolic project.
In illustration you’d get lots of images of lots of little people forming big things. There was also a vogue at one point for photomosaics forming a larger picture and everyone went “oooh” and that became a mini-fad. It was part of that idea at the time of the individual becoming part of a group thing, networks and the internet, and we should be thinking of ourselves as part of a greater whole which the participants couldn’t necessarily comprehend. It must have been when ideas of the internet were really bedding in. My hunch is that there was about 10 years of ‘a new collectivism’ cropping up in imagery and it was meant to be benign, there was meant to be no sense of ‘power’ behind it like there was in Socialist Realism [the official style of 20s/30s/40s Communist art], it was supposed to be an evolution, a dispersal of power. It wasn’t propagandist, it was people telling themselves ‘you are part of a great big human project’. But I find it slightly creepy now – like it’s saying we can’t comprehend the world we’re in, so we won’t try to think of ourselves as in any way powerful. I think all those collective-group images led to a glut of imagery with a lack of power, a lack of character or an individual representing a group. And that spawned some bland imagery which is what my cartoon was about. I was responsible for this myself, by the way – I drew plenty of businesspeople walking up hills, trees with symbolic things growing on them, groups of people building massive clunking metaphors…
You’re talking about the handshake, the lightbulb, the question mark?
The question mark! Don’t get me started on question marks! When I was starting out I did some very simplistic things which I have since meticulously eradicated from the internet! Question marks were my thing for a few months very early on in my career, when I didn’t have a clue what the article was about. I’d form a skull out of question marks something awful like that. But I think I was just a green illustrator copying a trend for bland, decentralised management imagery. That sort of work was what turned me onto comics really.
Going back to the judging, there was that image that we were quite taken by, a classic business image for a magazine cover, about the passing of time and the endless trek of the business traveller.
It’s a very lovely illustration, it shows how business illustration can be humanised and made beautiful when done really well. But I think, in other cases when it’s done badly, that this gentle, managerial style of business imagery subtly affects how we think about economics and the forces that shape the world. Because with that kind of illustration comes a lack of power I think. If you see an illustration about the banking crisis these days, there’s very rarely an evil-looking banker, you’re more likely to get a stormy sea or some force of nature, because now we know the world is more complicated than we can ever personally understand. But if you follow that reasoning too closely, you just end up with an image of powerlessness, of no individuals to blame, stuff just happens, and that slowly solidifies into a rather passive worldview. You used to get more ‘Fat Cats’ in business illustration, more poor people and rich people, more virtuous workers and evil bosses, whereas nowadays you get more trees.
The ‘Fat Cats’ going back to the George Grosz caricature tradition?
Yeah, I think people understandably think that is too simplistic nowadays, people don’t see the individual as being responsible for everything in the world. You get lots of little people but not many big ones.
There’s no one to pin it on? We don’t want to blame ourselves? Our own greed? Or is it just that there’s no single authority, or source of power, just a system?
Yes, I think that’s right. Financial illustration is a hard genre to do well, and the people who get work do so by handling clichés skilfully, or avoiding them altogether. But the clichés are interesting – they used to be the fat banker or the political puppetmaster, and then they were all that collective, force-of-nature stuff. Business illustration at the moment is more decorative and abstract, which is another interesting development, and I think we’ll only really ‘get’ our time when that becomes another illustration style that’s got a bit ‘done’.
When you are talking about Finance, I think of Richard Turley at Bloomberg Businessweek. He just nails covers. Echoing what you are saying there is always a twist or just simply an idea behind the cover image, you immediately get the concept. I’m surprised people don’t go for idea-based images. A classic example being Noma Bar – one image, two thoughts…Bang!
He’s a special case because he’s so clever. I think it’s that people are avoiding clichés at the moment or what has become clichés – say a pound sign in the shape of a tree because ‘oh yeah, seen it…’ Which is how something evolves, you do something a lot and it exhausts it.
Yes, like Stephen Merchant’s Barclays ads, the harassed, stressed woman running round spinning plates, too much to do, multi-tasking, and so on. It’s interesting that they stopped the campaign, Merchant was getting grief from his fans, but the Barclays rationale was that they wanted to do something more emotive. The ads featuring Stephen Merchant weren’t at all emotive, though they were funny, but they made you aware of all the signs and symbols and visual codes they were using – “we share your language and share your scepticism about advertising and bank advertising” – a perfect post-banking crisis pitch.
I come across it a lot, you end up using the clichéd images because they are there and they’re the shorthand and they’re the grammar. I’d love to see an academic study of how the grammar of these images changes over time. I think you could learn a lot about a period just by looking at what images get rejected by the art directors for being too trite.
Finally, on the subject of visual signifiers that become part of social currency, your new book The Gigantic Beard that was Evil, features one of the hottest signals of hipsterdom – the Beard. From Brooklyn to Shoreditch, and in art colleges across the world the Beard became a symbol of analogue culture, of craft, of the Edwardian…? How did that happen, and would your publisher have bought a book with an enormous beard on the cover, say, five years ago?
To be honest, my basic intention was bald trickery – I wanted to make a book that looked like ‘The funny beard story for the beard lover in your life’, but when you read it is actually about a pathetic man who is destroyed by all the metaphors that everybody else lives by. So this awful, meaningless thing happens to him – he is attacked by a massive, pointless beard growing out of his face – and then his fate is decided by the meanings that other people apply to it.
A bit like the guy in the ‘business illustrations’ strip. And as you say, people see a lot in beards, whether it’s masculinity or some kind of interior wildness or style or whatever. So he’s screwed from the start by other people’s imagery, basically.
And yes I think it helps my case that beards have had a long time being in fashion. I reckon there’s a few people have bought it just because it’s about a beard – which is fine by me – and I think the publisher quite liked that aspect of it too!
Stephen Collins new book The Gigantic Beard that was Evil is out now