Exhibitions: David Stewart's Arch View of the Ad World in "Paid Content"

By David Schonauer   Tuesday November 6, 2018

“There is nothing stranger than what I see in real life.”

So says photographer David Stewart, whose latest body of work focuses (sharply) on a world he has known intimately with for the past four decades — advertising. His series “Paid Content,” on view at the Wren London gallery through November 17 and coming soon in a new book from Brown Editions, takes a wry look at life inside a modern ad agency.

In Stewart’s view, it has become an environment in which originality is no longer prized.

“When David Stewart started shooting commercial advertising campaigns in the 1980s, the process would begin with art directors faxing over their drawings,” notes AnOther. “Ideas were left to percolate. There was room for interpretation and spontaneity. Today he’s more likely to receive a low-resolution stock image as the place to start.”

“Invariably,” Stewart tells the blog, “you find yourself being told that something doesn’t look like something else.”

But the work can be seen as a tongue-in-cheek critique of the modern workplace culture beyond advertising and “the wider dehumanizing effect that is occurring due to the growth of large, faceless corporations and globalization,” notes Creative Boom.

Stewart’s carefully staged images feature a cast of cheerless workers chewing over concepts in glass meeting rooms, at tables scattered with unripe fruit and individually wrapped muffins and “totemic urns of thin coffee,” notes AnOther.

“Agencies have become so much more corporate,” Stewart says. “The art buyers have been replaced by the producers who are more concerned with time and money than the art. Projects are broken into a thousand pieces. Every little thing is pored over and considered and that disrupts the whole creative process. It can squeeze the fun out of it.”

The fakery and camp of his tableaus nods to both Renaissance and Baroque paintings. “His subjects are locked in business-casual dialogue, caught in the moment,” notes AnOther.

“Through his process, he accords a heightened reality to these scenes,” adds Creative Boom. “The close focus, highly detailed images result in an unforgiving, penetrative treatment of his subjects and what they stand for – high gloss superficiality, smoke and mirrors - not the creative dynamism Stewart encountered when he first entered this environment.”

Stewart, whose advertising client list includes companies like American Express, British Airways, Peugeot, Coca-Cola, the Royal London Bank and Marmite, has earned acclaim for a number of personal projects, including “Cabbage,” an ode to an oft-disparaged vegetable,  “Thrice Removed,” a collection of photographic vignettes featuring re-enacted scenes of strange coincidences and unexpected connections inspired by Stewart’s real-life observations, and “Teenage Pre-occupation,” a collection of 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.

Like “Paid Content,” they all feature what the London-based photographer identifies as a British sense of humor. “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,” we noted in a 2015 profile of Stewart. “It’s not hard-boiled satire, but neither is it tepid bemusement about the folly of humankind. It has the bite of truth.”

Underlying the sleek settings in Stewart’s “Paid Content” images is a vision of the soulless habitat of the digital age. Technology has changed the way society consumes photography — and of course the way photography is created.

“Stewart used to shoot a Polaroid on set – its size alone dictated how people would examine it, with intimacy, intensity,” notes AnOther. “Today, a digital image flashes up onto a huge HD screen for everyone’s perusal.”

“Seeing it like that somehow emphasizes all the wrong elements,” says the photographer. “People fixate on a sock or a scarf that isn’t straight, which, when you get to the final result, is completely irrelevant if the expression isn’t right.”


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