PRINT November 1990


Barneys' Ads

A fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn’t think he’d remember. You take me. One day back in 1896 I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out there was another ferry pulling in. And on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on, and she was carrying a white parasol. And I only saw her for one second. She didn’t see me at all. But I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since, that I haven’t thought of that girl
—Mr. Bernstein, recalling his youth, in Orson Welles’ film Citizen Kane

One of the most unusual print advertising campaigns of the past year was launched last spring by Barneys New York. Each print ad in the series is dominated by a powerful black and white photograph, juxtaposed with a terse piece of copy (usually in white typeface against a black background). The striking photos—most from the late 1950s and early ’60s—illustrate the craft of some of our most celebrated vérité photographers, our most sensitive chroniclers of everyday life: Elliott Erwitt, Garry Winogrand, Roy De Carava, Rene Burri, William Claxton, Lee Friedlander, Dennis Stock. No merchandise is featured, or referred to, in any of the ads. While these ads arrest the eye, they are—at the same time—confusing as advertising, for despite their allure, their sales appeal is uncertain.

The persuasive power of these ads lies in the phenomenon of photography itself. Photographs today are such a prominent part of our field of vision that we take them for granted. In the process we ignore their power. When first introduced in the late 1830s, however, photography captivated the “wondering gaze” of humanity. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., an avid amateur photographer, wrote of photography as a “mirror with a memory.” With it, he observed, one could fix “the most fleeting of our illusions, that which the apostle and the philosopher and the poet have alike used as the type of instability and unreality.”

In its ability to entrap the evanescent moment—defying the passage of time itself—photography also eluded customary notions of mortality. Photographs had the capacity to grab transient gestures, to enshrine the commonplace, the incidental, to hold onto things that previously survived only as faint if potent glimmers of memory.

Sigmund Freud wrote extensively of the powers that such ephemeral impressions exerted in the economy of the psyche. Forgotten, apparently incidental moments of life, he maintained, stood at the heart of character development, providing elemental keys to our desires and discontents. Within each of us, these mementos lie concealed, asserting their influence, awaiting rediscovery. This insight of psychoanalysis may stand at the center of photography’s magnetism, its ability to replicate the immeasurable power of the moment in the frame of human experience. The photograph, as nothing before it, could preserve the girl in the white dress, the impassioned glance from a ferry boat. In its pregnant stillness, it could stoke the depths of longing.

It is little wonder, then, that in advertising—particularly fashion advertising—photography is the prime medium of communication. In the carefully constructed photograph, a piece of off-the-rack clothing can be evocatively wedded to a sublime moment, an erotic shimmer, an epicurean gesture. Discreetly distanced from real experience, the fashion photograph becomes a commercial embodiment of unfulfilled desires, primal appetites. Within a charmed garment, the wearer incorporates what Roland Barthes termed the “absolute state of the flesh.”

Given the ubiquity of fashion photography today, however, each ad campaign is faced with a serious stumbling block. How does one create the moment that will arrest the eye, and make the sale, amid thousands of other skillfully prefabricated moments, each created with a similar intent?

The Barneys campaign represents an innovative approach to the problem. Ridding itself of merchandise altogether, using images that have no overt connection to the world of fashion, these advertisements ride purely on the power of the photograph, its ability to capture and elevate the significance of the moment. Each photograph in the series is an eloquent testimony to the medium’s capacity for making the incidental special. In each scene an ordinary, everyday occurrence is rendered extraordinary, enigmatic, and consummate. The concise accompanying texts only accentuate this.

Garry Winogrand’s grainy, chiaroscuro portrait of five young toughs at a diner—sipping coffee, hunched in private conversation—bears the simple legend “a conspiracy of taste.” A casual meeting of youth, anywhere, is transformed, by the photograph into an archetypal cabal.

A Roy De Carava photo of a bare, dimly lit Harlem dance floor occupied by two solo, silhouetted dancers, each mesmerized by the rhythms in the air, is captioned “a style all our own.” The transported reveries of regular, Friday-night people soar to become an exalted monument to the music of the individual human soul.

Elliott Erwitt’s Long Island landscape with two farm houses being moved on platforms, rolling by, provides an optical poem, pondering the unsettling affinity of continuity and impermanence. And Dennis Stock’s granular photograph of a despondent James Dean, sitting atop a worn wooden desk in an old, empty Fairmont, Indiana, schoolroom contemplates the question of “roots” that haunts and elevates the experience of celebrity: “in a class by itself.”

Most advertising relies on the psychic mechanism of free association in making its appeal; the ability for people, in their minds, to make connections between unrelated phenomena: popularity and the purchase of a certain brand of soap; adventure and the purchase of a certain automobile; ecstasy and the wearing of a certain perfume; happiness and the use of a laxative.

While none of the photographs in the Barneys series bears a recognizable relation to what we normally think of as “fashion,” each implicitly fulfills the promise that most fashion advertising can only make. Free association stands at the heart of the campaign. Insofar as fashion is habitually sold on the premise that, with it, the wearer will jump out of the drear of the ordinary, that the banality of everyday life will take on an eye-arresting quality, these photos—none of them fashion photographs—incorporate the experience that is usually only promised in fashion ads. In each picture, the everyday has been elevated into art, the ordinary has been rendered at once significant and enigmatic. Seen in the “mirror with a memory,” ordinary existence is rendered remarkable, singular. There is no need to show merchandise. The photographic medium itself provides the perfect metaphor for fashion. Each photo provides an opportunity to actually experience the transformation of the mundane into the transcendent. Shopping at Barneys will do the same.

Stuart Ewen is professor of media studies at the City University of New York.