Rick Poynor | Essays

Stephen Gill: Behind the Billboard

Stephen Gill
Stephen Gill, L’Oréal – “Because You’re Worth It”

In the 1960s, artists and writers were a little bit in love with the idea of entropy. Few metaphors come bigger or juicier. According to the second law of thermodynamics, energy tends to flow away from being concentrated in one place, and entropy is the word for measuring this state of disorder. If the universe was a closed system, as some physicists surmised, and energy was constantly dispersing, never to be replaced, then eventually everything in creation would grow cold and end. Thomas Pynchon titled an early short story “Entropy” (1960) and science fiction writer Pamela Zoline used this notion in a classic tale, “The Heat Death of the Universe” (1967). In 1971, Rudolf Arnheim published Entropy and Art, an attempt to show how art was engaged in a struggle to impose order.

Designers, even more than artists, are battlers against entropy. The designer attempts to create not just aesthetic order, but structural and systematic kinds of order. A vital task, it goes without saying, but, taking the long view, often also a doomed, quixotic mission. You can heave that rock to the top of the slope, but unless you make a constant effort to restrain it, sooner or later it will come rolling down again. In their hearts, many designers know this.

In The Corporate Personality (1978), one of the key early texts positing the need for corporate identity, British identity and branding expert Wally Olins makes the disarming admission that so much design effort is actually in vain. Corporate identity manuals, he confides, are for the most part “written and illustrated in such a way as to bear no relationship to reality at all. They are elaborate coffee-table productions enshrining for all time what the corporation wants to achieve, but not necessarily bearing much relationship to what has actually been or will be achieved.” In other words, the perfect systems these documents conjecture is an unattainable – if not hubristic – illusion.

Entropy’s depredations were revealed with elegant simplicity in a series of eight photographs published in Saturday’s Guardian Weekend magazine, with the headline “The Hidden Message . . .” Stephen Gill’s pictures show billboards, not from the street side, as they are usually viewed, but from the back. According to the brief captions, the unseen images advertise corsets, health drinks, Gordon’s Gin, the BBC, Elton John’s greatest hits, and L’Oréal – “Because You’re Worth It”. What we see, though, are not the bright, seductive confections of adland, but the rough timber poles and frames that support these messages. The no-go zone on the other side of the fence, behind the ads, is a place in which no one has any reason to exert much control. The ground is strewn with rubble. There are piles of rubbish – old tyres, breeze blocks, oil drums, and skips full of trash. It’s a world of raw, recalcitrant matter, of things breaking up and winding down towards a natural state of chaos that advertising’s immaculate illusions have no reason to acknowledge most of the time.

Gill’s photographs – bracketed in the magazine by the usual ads for Toyota cars and, ironically, the same health drink his picture had blanked – offered the most basic kind of reality check. To discover what lies behind these fantasies, all you have to do is walk round behind them. The entropic “thingness” of what you find there is the point. Far from seeming strange or unwelcome, the stripping away of illusion comes as a relief.

Posted in: Business, Photography, Social Good

Comments [5]

This is interesting--basically, the way I see it, people are fundamentally intelligent and not so easily bamboozled as so many intellectuals and professionals of various flavors are often inclined to think. They can, and usually do, see through the bullshit; crappy & insulting movies tend to bomb (not always, but frequently enough), obnoxiously stupid TV shows generally have a limited lifespan. There are always exceptions, of course, as it is with anything.

And so too it goes with Adland--or even in Adbusters, to refer to what you were writing about in an earlier post. What the photographs represented (based on what you say here--and I confess I've not yet seen them) was a sort vacuous non-existent irrelevance. It's as if the old tires and trash was just a metaphor for the feelings those images thrust upon the viewers, or how people regarded the vast majority of them.

Do designers attempt to use order as a way to curb chaos, or perhaps to express it? Is it even about order and chaos, or is it really about the constant search for truth and the never-ending endeavor to be REAL? I think it was Godard who said something about style being the outside of content and content the inside of style. This I like: if its about only one and not both, then you're not being real about it. If your message is intrinsically false, if its stylistically and technically correct but totally devoid of honesty and soul, then yeah...its nothing more than the wire frames and shafts of wood before it degenerates into one big pile of pointless rubble.
Bradley Gutting

depredation: Damage or loss; ravage: " [Carnegie Hall has] withstood the wear and tear of enthusiastic music lovers and the normal depredations of time" (Mechanical Engineering).

I was intrigued by this definition of "depredation" because of the role of enthusiasts in creating (or participating in) the damage.

"Entropy's depredations" are also revealed "with elegant simplicity" by photographers and designers documenting torn wall posters, cracked painted typography, and other artefacts of commercialism on the street, from Walker Evan and Aaron Siskind, to all those 60s designers interested in decaying street signs, to, more recently, Jean Baudrillard, David Carson, and Edward Fella.

How is it that designers, "battlers against entropy," are so interested in the discarded, the worn out, the decayed, the detritus of modern civilization? Why is there so much interest in "detritus" and "garbage" as topics in American graduate design programs?

For decades, we have been confronting these images directly (i.e., taking pictures frontally) with the commentary being their decay — the cracked paint, the peeling poster. We are enthusiastic about documenting and collecting images and artefacts of commercial culture, but primarily when they are worn and faded.

Rick, is there a new complexity? One can't wait for them to decay? Getting "behind" the pristine images of commercial fantasy is necessary because they are replaced before they decay?
William Drenttel

All design and advertising -- maybe even all civilization -- is an attempt to resist the forces of entropy. The billboard, with its large scale and unabashed engagement with the real world, provides a great visual motif for that conflict even when viewed from the front.

Looking at Gill's picture, I thought immediately of Margaret Bourke-White's famous photograph "At the time of the Louisville flood, Louisville, Kentucky, 1937." You remember it: a line of displaced African-Americans standing in front of a billboard advertising the "American Way" with a lily-white family cheerfully speeding along in their roadster.

And then there's this, from a dozen years earlier:
But above the grey land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleberg. The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic -- their retinas are one yard high. They look out of no face, but, instead over a nonexistent nose. Evidently some wild wag of an oculist set them there to fatten his practice in the borough of Queens and then sank down himself into eternal blindness or forgot them and moved away. But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Michael Bierut

How is it that designers, "battlers against entropy," are so interested in the discarded, the worn out, the decayed, the detritus of modern civilization?

Could it be that this year's 'entropy' is next year's 'organisation', just as this year's irony might turn into next year's sincerity?

In other words, could it be that our perception of what is 'organised' is subjective, and subject to fashion?

Just now there's a fashion for 'messy' graphic design like that made by Neasden Control Centre:


This might have something to do with the fact that clean, organised graphics are so easy for amateurs to make with computers that college-trained graphic designers have to distinguish themselves, paradoxically, with a signature of 'organised messiness' difficult to achieve with DTP layout programs; a style which looks asymmetrical, entropic or spontaneous, but is really pretty careful in the way it organises information, remaining legible while still conveying a frisson of anarchy, a whiff of wayward, childlike spontaneity.

But (like Kafka's panthers in the temple, whose wine-drinking intrusion is so regular it becomes part of the ceremony) it's only a matter of time before these conventional representations of disorder become a new orthodoxy, a new order.

Regarding the title of this entry Behind the billboard. In Mexico you can find the strangest things behind billboards: houses. Literally.

A couple years ago the mayor of the city decided that billboards were uglying the city. A drive through any of the city's highways would assert that notion, as layers of billboards tower over buildings and scenery. Anyway, the solution? Well, why not bring the billboards down? So now, the latest public advertising trend has been placing smaller-sized billboards on the walls of houses that face major avenues. They installed billboard holders all over the city, specially in high-income neighborhoods. Houses that are worth over a million dollars are now adorned on the outside by advertisements and at night are illuminated by strong beams of white light. Imagine driving by [insert your city's high-end streets] and seeing gigantic ads placed at eye-level.

I asked my dad to take some pictures of this, they are not the best examples, as i wasn't there to art direct him but you'll get the idea. Go. (Excuse the lame presentation).

Jobs | July 19