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« Histories of Music | Main | Fantasy and Reality »

March 05, 2004

Method Look. Now: Method Cropping?

Dear Friedrich --

It's fun to watch culture fads emerge, gather force, peak and vanish. I haven't noticed too many baseball-caps-worn-backwards recently, for instance, while one style that seems to be everywhere today -- have you noticed it? -- is the silvery-whoosh car ad. A big spread with lots of air; something streamlined, abstract and silver (that would be the car); and a few discreet Quark boxes in subdued colors supplying the necessary information -- the whole of it screaming (but classily) "Expensive German engineering," even if what's in fact being peddled is a Chevy or a Honda. I seem to notice two or three of these ads in nearly every magazine I leaf through. Perhaps that's a sign that the style has already peaked. Perhaps it's a sign that it's becoming a classic.

One trope that's been around for decades -- it's a classic with a capital C -- is what I think of as The Method Look. The model gazes out from beneath impassioned eyebrows, making eye contact so direct that ... Well, I guess we're meant to feel that the model's looking deep into our soul and whispering, "I know what you're thinking, and it's something dirty and now, and it's about me and you, baby." A private exchange, meant to turn us on and make us go Yikes at the same time: young, bruised, resentful, hurt, challenging, and of course hot hot hot. For a moment the social niceties have been set aside and the raw Thing Itself -- vulnerable, intense, defiant -- is being channeled.

I'm no student of ad styles, but I'm guessing that The Look dates back to early Method days, to Brando particularly. He seemed to look at everyone that way, all the time. Was he the originator? I wonder. Did John Garfield use The Look before Brando did? Going back even further, Navarro and Valentino certainly smouldered -- but was their smouldering Method-esque? Beats me. But it's certain that since Brando, stars like James Dean and Paul Newman, as well as hundreds of wannabes, have used The Look pretty consistently. Let's just say that a lot of actors and models have spent a heckuva lot of time standing in front of mirrors while adjusting t-shirts, leather jackets, and eyebrows.

The Method Look has been a big presence in our cultural life for at least 50 years, yet apparently it still works. Pretty amazing, no? I wonder what its magic consists in. Any thoughts?

In any case, I'm only just now getting around to noticing a new way the media biz has developed of presenting The Method Look. They're managing to keep it fresh, I guess. Here are a few examples I plucked from current ads. As ever, apologies for crummy scanning skills.

The Method Look, Gal Division


The Method Look, Guy Division

Familiar stuff, no? The sultriness, the eyebrows ... But what I've only recently begun to notice about the way The Method Look is presented these days is how uniform the cropping has become. I've cropped all the above photos on three sides -- no need to show the entirety of the ads. But I haven't done any cropping on the top of the photos -- the way these photos are cropped on top here is the way they appear in the magazines. Notice anything? In each case, part of the model's head has been chopped off -- and not just a discreet little bit of head, but quite an abrupt, rude hunk.

I'm not sure what to make of this. Perhaps nothing ought to be made of it; god knows there's a lot of oddball cropping around these days, what with young designers playing hotshot Photoshop and Quark games. I suspect that what's intended is nothing more than emphasizing The Method Look -- kicking it up a notch. Not only is the model looking out at you from underneath his/her eyebrows, the photo is looking out at you from underneath its eyebrows.

Which observation has -- ta-da -- helped me pull together a thought. I've been trying to formulate this one for months, and now I think I have it. It's about what may be the biggest difference between traditional art-and-culture and cyber-era art-and-culture. Drumroll, please.

In the trad world, the generally-done thing was to offer elements and techniques that interact with each other in such a way that you-the-spectator might wind up having a certain subjective experience. In the cyber-era, on the other hand, the generally-done thing seems to be to provide not enabling elements, but the experience itself. In the case of the silvery car ads, for example: you don't take in the ad's parts and then internally have an experience of Whoosh; the elements themselves are going Whoosh, right there on the page. There's very little remaining for you to add -- to feel, to think, or to imagine. It's all been digested for you; the only response you're likely (or expected) to have is to say, "Whoa!"

In the case of The Method Look, traditionally you were being made to connect with a model or performer in a way that felt immediate, as though you were both cutting through the intervening medium. The inner experience was of connecting directly with another person. With a cyber-era Method Look, you aren't connecting with the model. "Connectedness" is all out there on the page already, while you're left (inevitably) saying "Whoa!" So what is left to connect with? It seems to me that the answer isn't the person in the picture but is instead the medium. In other words, it isn't a person who's caught your attention and is looking deep into your soul; it's Photoshop.

The trad approach encourages you to have an experience -- while, with the cyber approach, the medium is having the experience for you. What's pictured isn't so much an individual as a reference to a certain class of emotional/kinesthetic experiences. That reference is made glossy, grabby, and big, and is then shoved at you in striking ways. Dazzle flash strobe fwoof. The medium isn't being used to give you a human experience. It's being used to give you a media experience: Whoa!

If I only had a taste for media experiences, I'd be a happier culture-consumer today ...



posted by Michael at March 5, 2004


I've been ghosting on the blog for a bit (intimidated to comment) but I think this topic may be one I can give some insight.

Perhaps Camus' nihilism, perhaps McLuhan's deep understanding of the nature of Media. As a person on the edge of the old and new aesthetic all I can say is that the immediacy of the image is the message as well as the medium. The look, the cropping is shorthand for a certain feeling that we can understand. I realize that all advertising is about creating that connection, but in a hip-hop/digital culture creating a new message is secondary to referencing an old message in a new way.

Posted by: Conal O'Keefe on March 5, 2004 2:02 AM

I love that you include the guy from Half Life. He looked like a dork in his first incarnation. Now, thanks to the Method Look, he's a sultry, sexy dork.

Posted by: average joe on March 5, 2004 2:07 AM

Yes, yes, I definitely think you're on to something here with this notion of "the medium" being IT.

Posted by: Edw. on March 5, 2004 9:15 AM

I don't think I can comment on things called "the medium." Better left to the experts.

But...I observe...(a) one other "new element" is having their hair cover half their face, which seems to these eyes to undercut the immediacy of the Method Look. Who the hell can tell how they are looking? (b) A crewcut and glasses eliminates the "hothothot" part no matter what they are trying to do with their eyes. So does a backwards baseball cap, actually. (c) Brando "looking at everybody like that all the time" is hilarious and sorta undercuts the oooh-its-me-PERSONALLY-that-he-wants part of the message. If he's looking at a cop or a cheeseburger or a dachsund the same way he's looking at me, well...and (d) I think it's also about making people like them (i.e., of the same gender, so girls looking at the female models, or boys looking at the male models) want to BE THEM (wouldn't you love to feel as sexy about yourself as I feel about myself so you could look at a camera this way too?) as it was about making The Audience think that they were communicating to them (i.e., a female model making a guy flipping through the mag think she wants him). And, see, if you want to feel as Great and Self-Satisfied as I Do, you' this car! The message has not changed. (d) I can't intuit what cutting their heads off adds.

Posted by: annette on March 5, 2004 9:33 AM

Garfield was Method, but more panicked than sultry, Postman Always Rings Twice excepted. Valentino and Navarro strike me as playful, not as intense -- more "roll in the hay" than "bear my soul and God only knows what else" -- and much sexier as a result.

Those suggestively cropped photos, though, seem to go all the way back to vintage Hollywood. Witness the close-up "glamour shots" of starlets during the '30s and '40s, in which foreheads and hairlines jutted recklessly outside the frame; usually the shots are also tilted slightly so that the goddess in question appears recumbent. As I recall, von Sternberg did this quite a lot -- not just with framing, but with lighting -- in his films with Dietrich (Scarlet Empress comes to mind).

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on March 5, 2004 9:36 AM

I think, The Look in question is sort of diluted "Vamp", or "Soul-catcher" original. The message there was not only 'connectedness' and personal contact, but contact with the next step purpose - to subdue and hypnotize into submissiveness.
See this early example.
And the latest "whoosh" substitution also part of the overall tendency (nothing earthshuttering new here, either) to trivialize, to devoid of earlier meaning, like over-decorated columns on contemporary construction house: it's Victorian drag, they don't support anything.

Posted by: Tatyana on March 5, 2004 10:25 AM

I think they crop the head because it looks like you're right in front of them, only inches away. If you saw the whole head, it would push you away from them.

Posted by: Todd Fletcher on March 5, 2004 11:37 AM

Conal -- It's funny. When McLuhan was writing, he was seen as a prophet. These days, we seem to be leading the lives he prophecized we would.

The whole "media" thing is interesting. To play Old Fart for a sec ... Once upon a time, the media apparatus was put in the service of subject matter. These days the equation seems to have reversed. Subject matter exists in order to feed the media. And the experience isn't of the subject matter, it's of the media.

Much as I enjoy and admire design, I don't crave the jolts and zaps of pure media experiences, do you? But I don't have any trouble living outside the media either, leaving it behind. The whole new everything-feeds -the-media-experience aesthetic seems meant to appeal to people who are wired up to it 24/7, and to play Chrisotpher Lasch for a sec, who seem to feel lost an empty if they aren't getting their buzz.

But that's probably too gloomy -- thank heavens for most people, who keep it all in some kind of informal perspective. Thanks for dropping by and commenting.

Annette -- You ought to be publising this stuff! Wait a minute, this blog is public, which means that ... You are publishing this stuff. I'm glad it's out there in public. But it's a dizzying new world, isn't it?

Tim, Todd -- Old Glamour had its own way of presenting ultra-closeups, shots made to dazzle and feel intimate at the same time. But the langauge there strikes me as a little different. Even when cropped, the stars' heads were nestled in a classical way. The new supertight cropping (which you're right, does seem meant to bring faces thwack up close) seems to my eyes anyway to have no connection to the classical approach. It's more abrupt, almost (to my ancient tastes anyway) rude -- it seems to come out of a whole different world, TV commercials, videogames, skateboarding. I've spent some time looking over the shoulders of designers as they assemble ads and layouts and such, and recently it's been fascinating -- they do things that would never occur to Old Media me. They seem to have a very strong sense of What's Cool Now, and What's Cool Now seems to have nothing to do with traditional culture language, even traditional media-culture language. I'm actually a few years behind in saying this, because this new approach has been a long time coming, probably almost a decade. Rock videos, skateboarding magazines, David Carson, deconstructed professors at design schools -- it was a mess at first, but it's now settled into a fairly standard set of conventions, often rather luxuriously well-done, one of which is the abrupt cropping of body parts. I think it just reflects youthful, digital-era impatience and hustle, and a taste for thwack-and-smack -- for cutting abruptly into things, for sudden, wrenching shifts of mood and mode. All of which seems to have to do with ads and the nature of digital tech ...

Life in the electronic media universe -- I find it fun to track, if bewildering. Nothing I asked for, let me tell you, though I'm thrilled to have a blog. Do you find the rhythms and approaches of digital-media pretty simpatico? Us older, analog-era folks generally find them harsh, blinding, a little nightmarish. But younger folks often seem to find the new ways exciting.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 5, 2004 12:14 PM

I have the impression that cropping gives the illusion that the subject is bigger than the box (in this case the photo) holding it. A more "look at me" in-your-face kind of thing.

Posted by: sya on March 5, 2004 12:14 PM

Yeah, that too. Smack, whap, in-your-face. Comin'-at-ya. There's a lot of that splling-out-of-the-frame thing around. The love of being dazzled, overwhelmed, having an electronic nuke go off in your brain, I guess...

At the same time, it's interesting to notice that this chopping-'em-off-halfway-thru-the-head thing often happens these days even in full-body shots, where there's plenty of page space to provide air all the way around. Pictures really are framed in ways they never were before. I think young graphics people just like the unbalanced, slice-'em-off thing.

Hey, I notice something similar in the manners of many young people these days. They're prone to a couple of behaviors (video-induced, I suspect) that used to be considered intolerable -- venting (usually followed by a big guffaw, as though in venting they did something hilarious and brilliant), and cutting in on each other, interrrupting and bossing. Like we're all saying: thwack, smack.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 5, 2004 1:19 PM

As a proud owner and wearer of a natural uni-brow, I welcome the cropping you speak of. In fact, I'm waiting for the cropping to continue its southwardly path until all you see is the brow. Perhaps the bottom portion of the ads wil start migrating north, passing the mouth, from which all lies spring forth, but stopping at the mustach. And will all be Groucho-like and we will not brood over them but laugh, instead, at the shear hairy imbecility of it all.

Posted by: DarkoV on March 5, 2004 2:38 PM

BTW, Michael, in the 19th century what you call the "Method look" was generally considered "Byronic." Which might offer a clue as to its enduring appeal ....

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on March 5, 2004 3:07 PM

I like this article a lot Michael--I think you could take it further, I mean I think you could say quite a bit more and it would all be interesting. You actually beat me to the punch for this, I am intending to write an essay on the significance of the face in magazines (for various reasons--I just saw "Les Yeux Sans Visage"; and the next morning, sitting beside me on the train, a middle-aged lady was reading a celebrity gossip magazine, with a section called "Faces" that had candid portraits of Madonna, focusing on her make-up and what-not).

I have only a brief response to this comment of yours:
There's very little remaining for you to add -- to feel, to think, or to imagine. It's all been digested for you; the only response you're likely (or expected) to have is to say, "Whoa!"

This is something I've been thinking about for a while, in a slightly modified form. There's an billboard ad campaign by Verizon here in San Francisco. (I can't find a picture online, sorry). It's not a very creative advert, but I find it interesting: it features an image of a somewhat nerdy, ethnically ambiguous (but somehow white) late-twenty something male wearing "Buddy Holly" glasses; and in the background a nice picture of the SF skyline featuring the TransAmerica building (perhaps only the Golden Gate Bridge is more associated with SF).

This image is trafficking in cliches: the "nerdy" look and eyeglasses are instantly recognizable (if only subconsciously) with the "hipster" or indie-rock aesthetic which is (and has been) a huge huge social phenomenon in SF for the last 3 or 4 years. The guy is in his late-twenties, and by the building in the background we know he lives in SF. SF is a remarkably provincial city, and the hipster elite purvey this outlook as badly as anyone.

Is there any doubt what demographic this ad is targeted towards? No. But what's amazing is how remarkably instantaneous, how "obvious" the signs are that signify the content of the work: "Hipsters should use Verizon".

I'd like to contrast this with another ad that's in SF (and probably elsewhere), for the Toyota Scion ( - no image unfortunately). It's a picture of a gallery, with some hip twenty somethings sitting around looking unpretentiously disaffected. Installed in the room is a Scion floating in some glowing green goop. This is a direct reference to the British artist Damien Hirst who places animal cadavers in Formaldehyde and glass cubes.

So this ad is trafficking in a few things: cultural currency with the hip artist Damien Hirst (if anyone actually gets the reference--i had to pass by the billboard five times to realize it). but also associates the car with cultural sophistication of gallery-kids. The billboard is built up out of easily understandable cliche images, and like a math equation ads up straightforwardly to its intended meaning.

car + gallery = "the Scion is the car that supports the artsy lifestyle".

Fascinating stuff, I think.

Posted by: nick kallen on March 5, 2004 3:24 PM

Couldn't these super-close cropped faces be meant to simulate the visual experience of having sex with someone? You're so close you can't see the entire face, never mind the body, and this highlights the "whoosh," feeling-not-thinking reaction the ads do elicit. And the women in these ads invariably have an expression of sexual receptiveness.

Posted by: Nate on March 5, 2004 3:44 PM

Meanwhile the guys always seem to have an expression of, "I'm about to stick it to 'ya," or they look mussed up like they just got finished. (Off to hunt for examples...) (Meanwhile) Are they just trying to turn us on, in order to associate arousal with their products? Or is something else going on here?

Or am I totally out of line with my sex suggestion?

Thought-provoking post!

Posted by: Nate on March 5, 2004 3:49 PM

I apologize for the length of the following quote; it's an excerpt from 1999' novel by V.Pelevin, "Generation P" and the main character is a copywriter for an advertizing agency, thinking up a new campaign slogan.
[... If cocaine was sold in chemists' shops for twenty
kopecks a gramme as a mouthwash for toothache, he thought, then nobody but
punks would sniff it - the way it was, in fact, at the beginning of the
century. But if some ether-based glue sniffed by juvenile junkies cost a
thousand dollars a bottle, all the gilded youth of Moscow would be delighted
to sniff it, and at presentations and buffet luncheons it would be tres chic
to waft the volatile chemical vapours around yourself, complain about your
brain neurons dying off and disappear for long periods into the toilet.
Youth fashion magazines would devote revelatory cover stories (written, of
course, by Sasha Blo) to the aesthetics of the plastic bag that was placed
over the head for this procedure.
'Oho!' Tatarsky exclaimed, smacked himself on the forehead, took out
his notebook, opened it at the letter 'C', and noted down:
Youth market colognes (all manufacturers). Link them with money and the
Roman emperor Vespasian (tax on lavatories, the saying 'Money doesn't
smell'). Example:

Mr. Kallen, if it's of interest to you for your article, the full text could befound here

Posted by: Tatyana on March 5, 2004 4:09 PM

Can I pause for a sec to say what a pleasure it is to swap observations and ideas with y'all? It's really an awful lot of fun. Many thanks to all.

Now back to the usual rumble/brouhaha/party/whatever...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 5, 2004 4:41 PM

Well, I guess we should thank you guys for being interesting conversation starters...

Posted by: annette on March 6, 2004 12:57 PM

Well, of course, after reading this wouldn't ya know I'd happen to be in the mall today, and notice that every single one of those huge photos they decorate the windows with these days was a picture of an intense and/or strung-out young model, cropped at mid-forehead?

Y'all are turning me into a jaded media critic. Keep it up.

Posted by: jimbo on March 7, 2004 12:19 AM

Just since no one has pointed it out yet, I think it's fairly amusing that one of the guy pics you chose is a videogame character.

According to my class on "Hypertext" this pushing of 'the media' is called "hypermediacy" (which is, according to the theorists, usually co-existent with pushing of immediacy/transparency of mediumó the paradox makes me question the legitimacy of their observations). Supposedly every medium is a balance of hypermediacy and immediacy. For my own say, I think there's something different and disconnected in media today than has happened elsewhere in the past, and that this can't be explained by pat little theories claiming that all mediums have this quality.

Posted by: . on March 8, 2004 4:04 PM

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