by Judith Williamson
Issue 81 Winter 2014
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This ad for Tiffany engagement rings - running in glossy magazines around Valentine's Day - is a perfect example of a continuing line of advertisements, almost all for jewellery or perfume, that use black and white photography to signify romance in particular ways. These significations draw on a photographic history which, whether or not it is actually known to contemporary audiences, has been made familiar as a kind of all-purpose visual reference by advertisements themselves.
The straightforward content of this ad's image - a man holding his jacket over a woman in the rain, as they walk laughing along a wet street - provides the narrative explanation for its small-print text, which is set like a poem: 'Will you know that you're more fun on/ a bad day than most people are on good ones/ and that I wouldn't mind if it rained/ every day for the rest of my life if it meant/ I could spend it with you?' The 'Will you?' in larger print, above the close-up image of the diamond rings, leads the romantic narrative to its culmination in a proposal.
However, it is impossible to separate the content of the image from its style, which generates a key part of the ad's meaning. The use of black and white in contemporary advertising is always connected with - paradoxically - both a 'historical' and a 'timeless' quality. Perfumes with names like Eternity have long relied on monochrome (often sepia tinted) to suggest that their configurations of men, women and children are permanent and somehow outside the hurly-burly of passing time. High-end watches and jewellery are advertised in a similar way - a model photographed in black and white seems more classy, and the product less transient, than they would if colour were used. Black and white has generally come to convey something more serious, more aesthetic, and more lasting, than colour.
This is the wider context of the connotations that are now inseparable from the use of black and white photography. Yet there is a more specific reference made by its use in many recent ads, a reference that precisely is historical. The last period in which black and white was pretty much the norm in photography was the 1950s-60s, when although colour was available its use was not widespread. This is the period implicitly invoked by the use of black and white in a great many contemporary ads: a good example is the Dolce & Gabbana series for their perfume The One. The print images in this campaign appeared as romantic stills from the film version, a Scorsese-directed black and white short titled Street of Dreams, featuring Scarlett Johansson and Matthew McConaughey driving through the streets of New York, then viewing it from a roof top. The style not only of the imagery but the clothing, hairstyles and even the buildings, gave this an exotic and retro flavor, a suggestion of something both continental (despite being set in New York) and mid-20th century, perhaps an Italian film of the 50s or early 60s. The film's official synopsis claims it is 'a story of unbridled emotion. A story of Italy; of Hollywood; and of the world. Its classic cinematic style evokes both the grandeur of the golden years of Hollywood, and the passion and emotion of Europe's greatest cinema icons.' And yet, the publicity also insists, 'Scorsese's campaign tells a tale of timeless glamour...'.
So the past conjured up by this style is both a particular period, and 'timeless'. This idea of an image that is at once a moment, and yet permanent, returns us to the Tiffany ad with the couple in the wet street. Nothing signifies a moment of spontaneity quite so well as a snapshot in the rain: the weather is unsuitable for photography, but the instant is captured, even to the visible raindrops mottling the image. This advertising photo evokes the street photography pioneered by Cartier-Bresson and pursued by many others. Cartier-Bresson's famous idea of the Decisive Moment takes on a double meaning in the Tiffany ad: his intended meaning, the decisive moment of the photograph, when the photographer sees and takes the picture, becomes also the decisive moment in the courtship. (This is also the theme of the Scorsese film - there is a brief moment to establish if the relationship is The One.) Some of the best-known images in the history of street photography are indeed romantic moments: for example, Robert Doisneau's 1950 photo The Kiss, reproduced on countless postcards and posters.
The evocation of street photography from this golden period is not coincidental in the Tiffany ad. The street surface itself appears to be cobbled, which heightens both the continental and the historical effect. As with the Dolce and Gabbana series, the couple's clothes are subtly chosen to look, not actually old fashioned, but 'classic', as if they could be from the early 1960s. The woman's almost knee-length skirt, simple court shoes, and the cutaway style of her top, could be seen either as present-day or from the earlier period, and the man's clothing is equally ambiguous. There is nothing to say the image is not from today - the cars are modern - yet it has the distinct feeling of a still from the 1960s, which evokes a powerful set of meanings connected to that period.
The street itself is an important part of this meaning. Not for nothing is the Scorsese film titled Street of Dreams. The New Wave cinema of the 1960s featured city streets almost as characters. Another iconic image conjured up by the street setting of the Tiffany ad is The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan album cover, a photo in muted colour tones of Dylan with his girlfriend Suze Rotolo clinging to his arm as they walk towards the camera down a snowy Manhattan street. The Tiffany characters are like a much more smartly dressed version of this (and more romantic, in that the man, unlike Dylan, is showing consideration to his companion) - but the 60s flavour of freedom, spontaneity, and a more positive sense of the future remains.
To grasp the connotations of this ad it is not necessary to have encountered the photographers Cartier-Bresson and Doisneau, to have watched classic Hollywood, Italian and French New Wave cinema, or seen early Bob Dylan covers. These are all sources for the great bank of image history which contemporary advertising draws on: but, increasingly, contemporary imagery works as its own currency, circulating meanings that seem to function independently of the historical reserves that underwrite them.
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