Picks and Pans Review: The Art of Persuasion

updated 05/30/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/30/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Robert A. Sobieszek

In the text for this illustrated history of advertising photography, Sobieszek argues that it is an insufficiently recognized art form. The fact that advertising photographs are so explicitly "commercial," he argues, makes ad photographs no less art than, say, the works Raphael painted in the 16th century on commissions from Popes Julius II and Leo X. Apart from such abstruse concerns, the book provides a fascinating historical panorama of ad photography, from the shot of John Wilkes Booth on the wanted poster after he killed Lincoln (the reward was $50,000) to today's abstract, computer-generated images by Pete Turner. The photographs, detached from the text of the ads they illustrated, are often striking. There's an Ansel Adams landscape superimposed on a Hills Bros. Coffee can, an Edward Steichen tableau of homeless women for a 1932 Travelers Aid Society ad, a Lewis Hine shot of a train engineer for a 1924 Pennsylvania Railroad ad. Prurient interest is not ignored either. Sobieszek, who is on the staff of the International Museum of Photography in Rochester, N.Y., includes a sampling of elegant cheesecake (and beefcake) ads and quotes Dr. Mehemed F. Agha, Condé Nast Publications art director, speaking in 1931: "When a French advertiser wants to advertise fire insurance, all he has to show is a match. Whereas, in America you must show a skyscraper, flames, fire engines, and somewhere in the background, sex appeal." Then there is plain nostalgia: Joan Crawford, pitching silverware, is shown sprawled stiffly on a chaise longue, while the copy reads that she is "caught here by the cameraman in a vivacious mood." This book can be looked at as a pleasant diversion. It could also inspire a provocative discussion of how advertising affects selling and buying in this country—and of photography's role in that odd process. (Abrams, $40)

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