A decade since an extraordinary exhibition on the history of product photography in the 20th Century, we look back at The Ecstasy of Things
Exactly 10 years ago, the Fotostiftung Schweiz in Zurich presented an exhibition, The Ecstasy of Things: From the Functional Object to the Fetish in 20th Century Photography, and Steidl published the book. At nearly 400 pages The Ecstasy of Things explores how product and advertising photography reflected and shaped our relationship to objects and ‘things’ throughout the 20th and early 21st Century, with photographic gems unearthed from business and agency archives.
As we begin our exploration of the changing relationship between things and people, the digital and the physical (The Age of Hard and Soft) we thought we’d highlight some striking examples of photography in The Ecstasy of Things. Michel Frizot (photography researcher at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique) notes in his introduction how photography’s emergence in the 19th Century made it one of the symbols of modernity and the industrial age (along with electricity and the railroads). Modernity was the age of the machine and the camera was a new recording machine, the machine that visualized for the world all the other machines and things of the modern age.
In 2014 photography the age of social media and multiple platforms has generated new subject matter – 2014 was according to The Guardian, the year of the selfie – we’ve also left the age when consumer objects were simply consumer objects. German media thinker Norbert Bolz writes in the closing essay of The Ecstasy of Things that people now desire a different relationship with products, one that delivers the sensual promise and spiritual meaning that religious symbols used to have. “This first became clear to me some years ago,” writes Bolz, “when I attended a lecture by the new CEO of Harley-Davidson motorbike company, which had just recovered from a slump. Someone asked him, ‘How did you manage to get that old cult firm Harley-Davidson back on its feet?’ He replied, ‘You know, we simply stopped selling motorcycles. Now we sell a way of life and throw in a motorcycle for nothing.’”
Perversely, as we increasingly live in the digital world our appreciation of the material, the thingness of stuff, the tactile, the handmade all became increasingly important in 2014.
Here are 10 ideas from the age of classic product photography.
1. Order in the Office
Modern, organized, efficient, typical styling for the 20th Century office. While ‘nature’ and the organic appears in these photos the lighting, shadow and composition are all dedicated to make the machine sensually and severely modern.
2. The Face of Objects
Pareidolia is the perception of something significant (often human faces) in things. Or alternatively as in this absurd photo on the left-hand side by William Wegman, objects absorb us (see the Art Center Pasadena project in The Age of Hard and Soft)
3. The Thing and I
In a section called the Thing and I (a jokey allusion both to the Rodgers and Hammerstein film and the deeply enigmatic German philosopher Martin Heidegger whose writings around ‘things’ has been influential in product design and who has recently had a strange second life in innovation thinking), these two photographs highlight our sometimes fetishistic relationship with objects. The image on the left is notable for being shot by celebrated documentary photographer August Sander.
4. Furnishing an Identity
The photography of lifestyle and interiors magazines pitch the domestic space as expression of identity, as the physical expression of taste, but in reality the home is often a lot messier. In its seriously formal, buttoned up way, there is something dramatic and disruptive about these photos of objects escaping the steely, shiny, geometric domestic surfaces.
Or perhaps in the main image below, immobility. That photographic trend in the deconstruction of objects circa 2012/2013 has at least one precursor in the loving dismantling and arrangement of the perfectly engineered parts of a Volkswagen Golf. Even the destruction is rational, ordered ad exquisitely designed.
When entertainment products/things became mobile. The single on the Philips deck says ‘Thank you for Calling’, while the woman floats in some dreamy sound-space. The Simply Samsung campaign turns the model into a cowboy, the photo highlighting the lightness of the tech. Apple of course is about pure object-lust.
Currently a big driver in pervasive computing (the internet of things), Healthcare never looked so superhuman or even post-human in this image for Fiat’s company healthcare. Like an industrial laboratory for growing children.
8. Packaging: The Second Skin
Bottom left is the first ever Tetra Pak, heralding an era of convenience and frustration. And on the right the clenched fist of masculine strength reassures men worried about caring about underwear and threatened by the six-pack. But you might one to open the occasionally fiddly Tetra Pak.
The object as sign of innovation and the future, where the human blends with the object
10. The Object of Sport
Material, textures, tactility, with an extreme close-up sports equipment becomes sports objects. Sportswear increasingly sells on materials innovation. With the image below, you feel like you can touch and smell the rubberized surface, the light reflecting off the black groove on the basketball.