And furthermore ...

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Tuesday, 26 May 2015


Canadian advertising photos from the 1950s
 “Advertising is fundamentally persuasion and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art.”
William Bernbach

A collection of Canadian advertising photographs, of everyday household objects, of stuff. They were taken in the 1950s, something the packaging tells us at once. They tell us things we don’t think we need to know but are the very fine details without which we couldn’t understand the past, such as what products Mr and Mrs Average Canadian bought at the supermarket and what did they keep on the shelf behind the bathroom mirror. This is a world so ordinary it looks alien.

 Madmen was set in the same period these photos were taken, when the middle classes became prosperous in a way they hadn’t been able to for a generation, when ad agencies started making serious money, and when advertising became associated with a kind of ruthless creativity. At least that was the way it was in the top end magazines like Esquire and Vogue, who pushed the notion that brands mattered to the modern man and woman, as though they might as well be be naked without Johnny Walker in one hand and Philip Morris in the other. But same time, different world. Down in the real world of mid level incomes and struggling aspirations, advertising was still about product more than image. TV dinners, deodorants and lingerie could be depicted according to the same formulae because there was no need to vary. (Most of these photographs would have ended up in catalogues or newspaper ads.) 

 Whatever Madmen might suggest, the accounts that photographers have left us suggest most of them treated advertising as hack work, done only to pay the bills. A handful achieved a glamorous status but most disavowed the very idea. Technically all that was needed to fulfill the Bionet contract was knowledge of the basic rules, mainly what the lighting set-up should be. Madmen is actually about people in our contemporary TV world. Acutely, even cynically aware of how dull and shallow that place is, they are trying to sell the image of glamour, not to us but to themselves. 

 A stamp with the name Jack Markow appears on the back of two of these prints. The Markow studio address was at 1827 St Catherine St Montreal. The building still stands, now occupied by an art supply store and a martial arts gym.  Some quick research reveals that Markow was born in Montreal in 1921 and died there in 2001. As with a lot of commercial photographers, his legacy is scattered throughout various archives yet it tells us little about him. A man on hire who prolifically photographed medicinal products, bar mitzvahs, evangelical meetings, Quebec nationalists and new buildings in the CBD will tell us less about himself than someone whose output was narrower and in shorter supply. To understand Markow, we need to find the snaps he took of his family, but maybe they don’t exist. Maybe the busman’s holiday didn’t appeal to him; the mere thought of picking up a camera became physically painful for Jack Markow. Would you be that excited if you had just spent all week photographing diuretics.  

It is just coincidence that so many of the two dozen photographs bought in this collection are of pharmaceutical products, yet it may not be. The 1950s were the beginning of the modern age of the pharmaceutical industry, when there was not only a product for every minor complaint but it had the imprimatur of various government departments. This was a time when the side effects of drugs were often discovered once they had been on the market a few months. Today, conscientious doctors advise us that a little pain is not necessarily a bad thing but in the 1950s discomfort of any intensity was something to be avoided. We can thank the war for that. Firstly it had necessitated a series of pharmaceutical breakthroughs, and also the postwar peace encouraged the avoidance of pain. It was as though the Government was leaning over and asking, in a kindly voice, haven’t you suffered enough?


But back to the original point, the one about stuff. Those of us born too late to experience the 1950s can be persuaded that things were better back then, and by things we mean stuff, not politics or lifestyles. Well it’s true that in the 1950s cigarettes didn’t give you lung cancer and Coke wasn’t responsible for diabetes, and we’re always being told that a new packaged pie tastes like pies used to, which means like they ought to. When we look at the Steinberg’s ‘kitchen fresh’ (whatever that means) chicken pie, do we not wonder if it would taste more like a chicken pie should to our jaded senses? You can bet it was horrid: a sludgy confection of artificial pastry and gravy surrounding some pink cubes of former chicken, but at a time when the world feels harder, more insecure and less generous place than it was when these photos were taken, nostalgia for a non-existent taste sensation stands in for other illusions as well.

 So, did all the things we see here come about because we wanted them, or was it because advertisers told us that we did? Was BO a problem before deodorants appeared or did it become one only after a solution had been found? In 1957, contemporaneously with these photos, Vance Packard published The Hidden Persuaders, which didn’t just expose some of the tricks advertisers used but argued that the real danger was that political machines were beginning to use them. Half a century of wonder drugs and lotions later, the question is more refined: have we become inoculated?


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