Retail Fictions:
The Commercial Photography
of Ralph Bartholomew Jr.

The Jam!  This is a truly one of a kind book that we can’t say enough about, although fully realizing that it is definitely not a book for everybody (and that’s putting it mildly).  Published in conjunction with the exhibition of the same name held at the Los Angeles Museum of Art in 1998, this book documents for posterity the work of an outstanding commercial photographer who you’ve never heard of.  Ralph Bartholomew Jr.  was but one of a cadre of advertising workers who shaped the American consumer consciousness during the years of ascension of mass market advertising. Yet, clearly, his work stands out in both conception and execution.  The auteur theory -- developed in France in the late 1950s for use in gauging and defining the work of Hollywood film directors -- can be applied just as easily to the work of other commercial artists such as Bartholomew; and that is precisely what Retail Fictions sets out to do.

The opening essay, by the exhibit’s curator, Tim B. Wride, is brimming over with insight.  Adopting Judith Williamson’s claim that, “advertisements ... sell us ourselves,” Wride states that Bartholomew’s photographs, “provide us with the means whereby we can not only construct identities for products but are forced to recognize identities as products.” Wride also sites Marshall McLuhan who wrote in 1964 -- long after Bartholomew had proved the point -- that, “all ads in magazines and the press had to look like scenes from a movie.” The evidence provided by the photos displayed in this book certainly confirm this observation, and are especially reminiscent of the film of a particular director -- Douglas Sirk --  who was active at the same time as these photos were being made.  And finally Baudrillard’s assertion that advertising is not an adjunct to consumption but is itself “an object of consumption,” whose function is ultimately the “regression of the individual into a social consensus.” For Wride, finally, the photographs of Bartholomew and his cohorts in the advertising industry “act as collective memory, as a shared recollection whose source is not the actual experience but the acceptance of the experience through the image.”

The centerpiece of both the exhibition and the catalogue are the series of campaigns that Bartholomew designed and executed for the Eastman Kodak Company.  These photographs are carefully orchestrated and center around the activity of photography itself.  Each layout in the series is carefully set-up to incorporate the acts of posing for photos, taking photos and then looking at photos.  These activities are, of course, themselves in turn being photographed to promote photography.  Talk about a hall of mirrors!

These images shimmer and shine before the eyes like archetypes that they are.  As the title suggests, each of these images is implicitly narrative in nature.  Every picture tells a story, but few are more thoughtfully and elegantly constructed than some of the images that you’ll find here.  A beautifully produced oversize softcover volume filled with photographs printed to the highest commercial standards, Retail Fictions proves that art is where you find it.

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