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Photographer Profile - David Stewart: "The humor in my pictures is very British"

By David Schonauer   Tuesday March 10, 2015

Is there a singular British sense of humor? If so, it’s probably one of those things like pornography—you know it when you see it. Several years ago the British comic actor Simon Pegg considered the matter in an article for the Guardian newspaper and concluded there really wasn’t much of a difference between British humor and American humor—though, he noted,
“[W]e British do use irony a little more often than our special friends in the US. It's like the kettle to us: it's always on, whistling slyly in the corner of our daily interactions. To Americans, however, it's more like a nice teapot, something to be used when the occasion demands it.”

There is irony whistling in the background of David Stewart’s  photographs, a small noise you discern but might not be able to precisely identify. It’s not hard-boiled satire, but neither is it tepid bemusement about the folly of humankind. It has the bite of truth, but you might not notice at first because the visual punchlines are subtly woven into the fabric of the reality he captures—though reality is the starting point, not the actual point, in most of his work. You feel he has a genuine affection for the characters he pokes fun at, which is important. Stewart himself notes that some people have described his work as both cruel and tender.

“I think the humor in my pictures is very British,” he says. “It comes from the culture in the UK, which can be seen as eccentric and quirky. I find the humor is greater when you feel something for the characters in the photos; if you don't like them, people turn off. Often, I think people associate with a situation or a person in the images—they recognize something from their own lives. And when that is presented in a photograph which may have certain elements exaggerated, it makes them smile.”

At 57, Stewart is one of the UK’s most highly regarded commercial photographers; his advertising client list includes companies like American Express, British Airways, Peugeot, Coca-Cola, the Royal London Bank and that most British of food products, Marmite, whose attributes can, like British humor, be lost on those bred elsewhere.

He’s earned even wider acclaim for personal projects in which his sensibility is more particularly on display. Not long after taking up photography as a profession—he abandoned his first line of work, civil engineering, for art and photography school—Stewart created “Cabbage,” an ode to an oft-disparaged vegetable. The stills were accompanied by a short film  that won a BAFTA award in 1995. Since then, he has published three books that, in different ways, reflect his taste for odd characters, surreal moments and underlying truths. In Fogeys  (2001), he imagined an alternate view of aging, using cartoonish colors to capture graybeards “growing old disgracefully.”  Thrice Removed  (2009) is a collection of photographic vignettes featuring re-enacted scenes of strange coincidences and unexpected connections inspired by Stewart’s real-life observations. The brilliant Teenage Pre-occupation  (2013) featured documentary-like images of his own sons and daughter recreating real-life moments that he had witnessed, each illustrating the self-involved world of the young.

“The teenagers in the pictures think they are just getting on with their normal lives, but when photographed certain things become more visible,” he wrote of the project. “Sometimes it may come across as quite a dark place to be, but there is an underlying British humour to the images found in the details.”

Making the Familiar Offbeat

Stewart says that each of his personal projects is a reaction, in style and subject matter, to the previous one. “It’s the way I plot my little path,” he says. His latest series has moved him into a more truly documentary area: Late last year the British charity Comic Relief asked him to highlight the work of rehab centers it funds in London by creating a portrait series  featuring recovering addicts who now lead sober, productive lives. The images have been used in the UK in the run-up to Red Nose Day, a biennial telethon that airs on the BBC this Friday, March 13.

“For me it was an opportunity to try something which I hadn't done before, making portraits of real characters with faces that tell stories,” says Stewart, who portrayed his subjects in the context of their current work lives—a tree surgeon posed with his chainsaw; a dentist retrained in aesthetic medicine seen in her office with the tools of her trade—syringes and vials of Botox. “The photographs obviously don't have the humor element in my other work,” he says. “Instead, they create interest by juxtaposing the people's past lives and what they now are occupied with.”

Stewart approached the work as a personal project, investing it with his own visual ideas. And like all his other personal work, he shot the series with a large-format 4x5 camera and transparency film. “It suited the subjects, in that you were recording a real event, and you can’t get more real than shooting transparency,” he says.

But there is a difference between real life and reality in pictures. Stewart says that shooting in the 4x5 format is like painting: “You can paint things bigger or smaller or put things in to get people’s attention. In my images, there are layers in there where you’re not sure why you’re looking. Something slightly draws you in, and then you try to make the links about why it’s drawing you in.”

In work like his Thrice Removed series, where imaginary scenes are played out to express his own ideas, the schism between the real and the fanciful becomes an intriguing paradox, made more confounding by the visual impact of the 4x5 film. Even in his series on recovering addicts, details—those vials of Botox—make the familiar offbeat. “I always think there is nothing stranger than what you see in real life, and I am just presenting this to suit my own sensibilities,” he says.

The Globalization of Humor

However you define it, Stewart fears that British humor may be disappearing from modern culture, insofar as commercial photography is concerned. The cause: globalization and the ability that marketing experts have in the digital age to quantify and predict what will move consumers to buy products.

“The character has been knocked out of advertising—it’s gotten a little gray and corporate,” he says. “Where I used to do a campaign just for the UK, now often you have to also make it work in Europe. So any sort of quirks of British life are taken away, because people in Germany or France won’t understand them.”

More often than not, Stewart says, ad agencies and clients now know exactly what image they want before he’s started a job, leaving no room for his own viewpoint. “I receive layouts where there’s already an image in place,” he says. “It’s not a line drawing like it used to be—it’s stock photography that’s been put in to illustrate a point.”

He wonders if the answer lies in his portrait series for Comic Relief. “Could this be the future of where the interesting advertising commissions go?” he suggests. “Imagine a series of photographs or films which work across all media and come from a photographer’s personal view.”



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