On Richard Billingham

Informing Contexts : Falmouth University MA

We were invited to review the work of Richard Billingham and reflect on any relationship to our own practice.


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http://www.huckmagazine.com/art-and-culture/film-2/richard-billingham-bring-photographs-thatcher-era-family-big-screen/ (accessed 2 April 2017)

Sampling the moving and static images of Billingham’s early domestic work renders me uneasy, cautious in how to express my feelings about it because of an innate middle-class, left leaning consciousness about appearing or indeed being patronising or condescending or despairing or in a way fond of the people I mix with where I walk my dog Rory every week where the Black Country overlaps with the city of Birmingham. But I realise that is because Billingham actually gets in there, he was in there, part of it, growing up, watching, capturing and apparently unselfconsciously making a series of images that were it; the life that threw his whole family into a claustrophobic box after selling to a con man the terraced home that had a street, back yard and neighbours. He has produced a view literally from the inside, images that always beg questions; the flight of the cat, the smear of flies, the escapism of huge jigsaws and fags (death at 56) and perpetual alcohol (death at 74).  It is an incredibly consistent body of work, a micro familial study, nowhere are the Ektachrome images of capital cities, smiling faces and beaches that constitute most family slide collections.

Emerging from his foundation course locally and his degree in Sunderland Billingham got noticed and his observations of the ordinary at the 2000 exhibition at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham carry the connotations in their titles of his approach to home and photography; family portraits (1990-1996), earlier black-and-white family photographs (1990-1991), a new series of urban landscapes (1992-1997) as well as video stills and four short video pieces: Ray in Bed (1999), Playstation (1999), Liz Smoking (1998) and Tony Smoking Backwards (1998). https://ikon-gallery.org/event/richard-billingham/ (accessed 2 April 2017). Having gazed at Billingham’s images I see an aesthetic that is cramming in the colour, yet poverty, desperation yet a homily to home, clashes of pattern, clashes of flies dying in the kitchen, clashes of people, clashes of need.  They are there, they are in your face.  He chose to make images perhaps to understand, perhaps to make a memory, perhaps he “sought a more critical understanding of the reality of his daily life” to quote Cotton in Ray’s a Laugh .

To gaze at the images one pleads to know more more; why, how, who? No one knows if a film will be good until the critics write and the cinema audience grows.  Similarly Billingham didn’t know this series would pluck him from the pack and make famous not just him but those to whom he would be tied for ever through birth.  I am certain this drew out his protective stance towards his subjects when the gaze was not just an audience in a gallery, but the gallery was Tate Britain’s Turner and the press and media always thrive on the Tate’s ability to promote and provoke.  The biographic photographer’s eye was fixated on his own, his nearest and thus he naturally sought, as a reaction to the interest, to the media gaze to protect them. I would too.

At the Kunstmuseum exhibition Ich, zweifellos, Wolfsburg, 2009-2010 http://www.photography-now.com/exhibition/63156 (accessed 2 April 2017) Billingham was shown alongside some established big names Cindy Sherman, Bruce Nauman and Beat Streuli. The show’s theme translates as Undeniably Me.  There could be no better way of embracing Billingham’s work under that banner.

In another show, entitled Damaged Romantics, https://greyartgallery.nyu.edu/exhibition/damaged-romantic-011309-04409/ (accessed 2 April 2017) we perhaps peel away at some of Billingham’s thinking in an interview, “Observing viewers’ reactions to these early works, Billingham commented, “I quickly came to realise that most people only saw the surface of the images,” adding “I don’t think most people saw the beauty underneath or how well the pictures were composed.”

In an interview with Tim Adams in March 2016 we get more insight and a reminder about managing viewers; the gallery and the context of the web https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/mar/13/richard-billingham-tower-block-white-dee-rays-a-laugh-liz (accessed 2 April 2017) We talk about the line between exploitation and documentary; did Billingham worry about crossing it when he photographed his family?  “Not really. That’s why you put them in a gallery,” he says. “You frame them in a certain way to allow a particular reading of them. But now you have the internet, the pictures are all there out of context…” Does that bother him?  “With the photographs I tried to make them as truthful as I could and hopefully that element overcomes any exploitative element,” he says. “I think there was a warmth to them.”  The interview goes on to lay before us the explicit reality, should we be under any misconception about the actuality of living in that tower block “But there was a weakness there in Ray and Liz that he must have hated, when his brother was taken into care and so on? “No,” he says. “A vulnerability. I just hated growing up in that tower block. I didn’t like being unable to walk out of the door. You had to get in the lift and people would piss and shit in the lift and spit on the walls. You had to be careful never to lean on anything.””

I agree with the statement, “Where can something so tragic be at once so aesthetically magnificent? Where can hopelessness, failure and darkness be propped up to enjoy so voraciously… only in art” http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/4726608/Meet-the-parents.html (Links to an external site.) (accessed 2 April 2017).  The series of images are made to show not just a method of practice focused on reality, but to convey the real, a kind of naked frankness that is enthralling and embraces an idea through the convenient means, the camera.  They are moments which most certainly strike on viewing, for which Barthes can be applied “This second element which will disturb the studium I shall therefore call punctum; for punctum is also: sting, speck, cut, little hole – and also the cast of the dice. A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me). BARTHES, R. (1981). Camera Lucida: reflections on photography. New York, Hill and Wang. (pp26-27).

Billingham’s work has now progressed and such shows as this in Eastbourne in 2015

http://www.townereastbourne.org.uk/exhibition/richard-billingham-panoramic/ (accessed 2 April 2017) exhibit his quite intense panoramic landscapes.

Then there is the transition to seek funding for a film through a Kickstarter campaign https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/68852125/ray-and-liz, so Billingham has managed to find a line between protection and publicity through the explanation of a film.

Reflecting on my own practice I see two strands to Billingham’s work, the brutal conveyance of his human circle which in many ways could not be further than my own work (except perhaps for the brutality of demolishing thoughtful, fine and robust structures from the Twentieth Century and casting them to dust to make way for the wealth making machinery) but the study of the ordinary, of things as they are found, the things that are close by, that may not be pretty, may lack a traditional deliciousness, really chimes with me.  I caress concrete as though it is skin, to find lines, pores, smoothness and invite my camera to do the same.  The aesthetic of the banal is easily overlooked, but in Billingham’s case, not.


Bring on the Image Bank

Informing Contexts : Practice Reflection

MA Falmouth University

The mental imprint can at times dwell consciously in one’s brain, as John Stathatos writes on photography, “its unique relationship with reality, a relationship which has little to do with ‘truth’, visual or otherwise, but everything to do with the emotional charge generated by the photograph’s operation as a memory trace” quoted in Badger G. ”The Territories of the Medium”, The Genius of Photography, Quadrille, London 2007.

So it was with James Welling’s lingering image, The Glass House, Connecticut, USA, the impressionistic view of Philip Johnson’s own home, shot from 2006 to 2009.  That featured in the exhibition organised by ICP Curator Carol Squiers, What Is a Photograph? that explored the range of creative experimentation that has occurred in photography since the 1970’s exhibited in 2014. It is an image for which Barthes may have made his observation, “The Photograph then becomes a bizarre medium, a new form of hallucination: false on the level of perception, true on the level of time: a temporal hallucination” Barthes, R. (1981). Camera Lucida: Reflections on photography (1st American ed.). New York: Hill and Wang. p115.  The deep orange seems somehow appropriate and not jarring as the subject is the setting and object that is the wholly glass walled Modernist house set amongst its own parkland. Map Magazine’s citation reads “his imposition of fanciful abstraction and colourful embellishments could register at odds with the no-frills rationality of modernist architecture. Could he be challenging Johnson’s conceptual conceit? Or conversely, perhaps Welling continues the investigation of transparency and the dialectics of interiority and exteriority propagated by modernist architects. Somewhat humorously, the combination of modernist iconography with dramatised, artificial lens flares appear as if spiritual transcendence is occurring on the very picture plane” http://mapmagazine.co.uk/8991/james-welling-glass-house/

I had this Welling image firmly springing into my mind when I walked out onto this flat expanse of roof, during my shoot of buildings under threat, in this case the Masonic Hall, known as the Clarendon Suite, Hagley Road, Birmingham March 2017 to be demolished April 2017. The ‘doubleness’ Welling cited in his work and the deliberate use of filters to cast and manipulate light onto the image but also through the dual glass facades all chimed.  This image is taken through a tinted glass corner; the glass itself providing a deepened hue viewed through one sliding door to another beyond and the clouds and a simmer of sun interplay with the leafless trees both beyond and reflected from behind. The building is 1971 vintage and the colours capture the light brown cast that spreads throughout the building.  My Birmingham view is less sunny, infused with ordinariness and uses no filters  but the layering of the architecture and the imposition of nature and the weather play into the shot of a building that is otherwise the antithesis of Johnson’s house as it uses extremely small amounts of glass to shield views to and from the goings on of an institution that operated historically with a high degree of privacy and seclusion.

figure 1: Wellings https://www.nowness.com/story/james-wellings-the-glass-house

figure 2: Own work, ‘Momento Mori’/Empty Series commenced March 2017, Birmingham

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Sophie Hedderwick – an interview

Week 8 at Falmouth University MA has been about the Gallery and Display. I was delighted that the artist Sophie Hedderwick agreed to be interviewed about her work and her current exhibition

Swift as a Shadow 17th March 2017

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Hedderwick has exhibited in London, NYC, Tokyo, Milan, Venice and now Birmingham at Argentea Gallery.  She welcomed the opportunity to talk about her work and how the show, entitled Swift as a Shadow, a quote from Shakespeare, is part of a lifelong journey through performative, materiality, light and photographic expression.

The introductory leaflet to the show quotes Barthes in Camera Lucida and the “kairos of desire” as a photographic critic’s setting for what is seen hanging on the walls.

I interviewed the artist in her local coffee bar in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter in March 2017.  She conveyed her thinking, practice, performance and photographic precesses, family, motherhood and feminism during the conversation.

Her heady cocktail of degree, masters and a newly launched PhD are interspersed with a genuinely rich mix demonstrating her philosophy and output as a multimedia artist.

How did you get to now?

What was revealed through the conversation was the constant if evolving themes that run through her work. From  experimental textiles, majoring in pliable weaving of electroluminescent wiring that included the making of a chair and a corset for older daughter.  She then drew upon drama, film, editing film radio documentaries and recording social histories. Much of her visual work she archived via photography as “frozen capture of things static, moving and blurred”.

She exploited the patterns of nature in a Fibonacci series of lighting attached to dancers’ bodies.  Working with Dancexchange in Birmingham in 2009 she made stills and film of the movement with light.  In an installation of choreography, with the composer Jonathan Girling, she showed in New York.  Her work created a fertile ground for capture and she discovered through experiment that photographic still imagery on long exposure gave better outcome than video as one frame gives streaming movement, she first displayed this output at a Dutch film and design festival in 2009/10.

Sophie was keen to show me her digital/film hybrid via an Impossible company app on her phone which, via Bluetooth, controlled her Polaroid 1-1 camera. This appealed to may tech’ intrigue. She is able to control multiple and long exposure images using the kit to experiment with multiple exposure.  There is a 20 minute development time of the prints. There is a delayed reaction and the anticipation is a notable part of the process. We spot that recent images on the iPad included her early work in the form of the woven light chair.

We talked about her purchase of a 3D scanner.  She plans to use the 20 second scanning facility to scan models, evoking the still poses of 1839, and then manipulating the body parts. This may lead to a virtual reality headset project.  Sophie often mentions the wish to engage more with younger people and sees this as a possible vehicle for that.

Exhibition Invitation

We explore the perception that gallery goers, owners and operators are too often white and middle class but thankfully less male now.  She enthused about working with Jenny Anderson, the owner of Argentea, and their shared vision for the show.  Anderson was “supportive and shared a voice and wrote the text, it was very much a two-way process”.  The conversation began after a gallery visit and then Anderson, on reviewing Sophie’s web site, expressed an interest in her work.

The lead up to the show involved a shoot plus harnessing some archived work, the printing onto brushed aluminium on sample sizes via the printer in Germany (Whitewall). Following a number of trials, ink is sealed by UV curing as a light process which makes for an extraordinary print.  A group of 30 were tabled, then 20 selected and 10 found their way into the final show, plus some small Polaroids and a video. 

A large proportion of the show is a study of her daughter moving, inspired by Degas’  Little Dancer aged Fourteen originally made in wax in1880/81 and a bronze cast is wonder by the Tate, 1922. http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/degas-little-dancer-aged-fourteen-n06076

The choices of Display

We have a shared concern about the problematic display of prints behind framed glass and slight detachment and alienation plus the effect of glare.  Argentea uses two lights per piece which is effective in highlighting each work and lessens any potential for direct glare because of the oblique setting.

Sophie talked at length with her buyer at the private view and the work appealed to him as he had moved into an apartment with exposed steel beams and he was seeking the metallic aesthetic.  The choice of acrylic based printing for a small number of more static images posed created a counterpoint to the aluminium and deepens the colours used. The act of selling is not predictable. Jenny asked her to create a number of ‘clearer’ images, i.e. less blurred, but it was acknowledged that it would have ventured into the approach of the artist.  The response was “a conducive conversation, not instructed but easy going , with an easy set up, planned together organic set up”.

The work is a very personal project and the dubious context for Degas’ Parisian culture of rather dubious  1880’s exploitation of young dancers is obviously not the generator for the study as it is captured with a happy familial setting.  Her daughter, Caitlin, has performed since she was 3, and her mother too has danced from the same age.  Sophie agreed that the project perhaps inevitably echoed and was influenced by her own adolescent memories. Caitlin has choreographed her dance routine which is captured in the video and in part uses a GoPro camera mounted on her head.  The use of Eadweard Muybridge graphical backdrop is inspirational as it echoes the study of movement through a series of cameras back in the late nineteenth century and of course a contemporary of Degas’.

I enquired whether there were any issues with showing such personal work to the world.  Hedderwick always checks with her daughter to see that she “approves of the proposed exhibition images and she would not show any that are not approved”.  Her daughter, having seen the show, has warmed to the series.  It is a collaboration between photographer and subject.  “You capture your own children constantly anyway but you have a responsibility; Sally Mann’s work with adolescents has been awkward …for her subjects, retrospectively”

Voyuerism – the gaze of photographer is a descriptor that is understood by all serious photographers; we discussed this, but Hedderwick is collaborative and not controlling in the two way dialogue she has with her daughter. We talk about Barthes’ reference to the erotic and pornography, and agree that this work is neither, but rather sensual. There is no objectification. Conscious of audience’s translation and gaze, Sophie describes the work as  “mapping the curve of childhood to adulthood”.   We move to Barthes’ family and the life and death of his mother.  The emotional link to children and parents is powerful, but we note that Caitlin very much occupies the image world – she is constantly capturing and exchanging images and video of her life and her dance.


And how do you see feminism right now?  “having daughters it is still important to make them feel they can do whatever they want to do, be strong women, embrace it”…. I do worry about pressure of young girls making up Kardashians we need to fight against it, it is different from the 1980’s”.  Is it still a battle now still?  “in the context of this work, it is almost unique to work with female curator, the art world is still male dominated.  There is work to do – young people learn about sex via pornography and the exposure and sharing of images – this is such a bad way to learn about sex, and there is a prevalent manipulation of imagery – Vogue shows models in their mid 40’s complete line free – what kind of images are we absorbing for young people and women?”  Then words which really emphasise her feel and observation for humanity “cosmetic surgery such as botox is just hideous, if you cant frown you can’t gesture and gesture is the most important thing in interaction”.


I asked what is the motivation to show work?  Her response will be felt by many photographers “we take lots of photos, unless we enquire we receive no feedback, it is important to me as you can’t work in a vacuum.   Feedback and criticism is welcomed, so far feedback reaction on twitter is welcomed too as it is so immediate”  plus linkages to old colleagues from student days have transpired from the exposure. Jenny Anderson is open and talks and provides feedback to artists.  Photobooks have been sold too – hand made sewn bindings echo her textile precedents for making weave.  So, how about showing this body of work elsewhere? “I expect this to happen naturally –  where I may show photography and more film and I may show again locally in a year or so’s time”.  She goes on “I would like to be more interactive next year, developing my app’ to allow people to position themselves in front of the work” as it is of course de rigour.

And finally, any advice for emerging art photographers? “Always have confidence in what you do.  I am a tutor for  MA students and I quell their nerves about hanging and showing their work I tell them to experiment with display – boxes, walls, you have time to play so use it” and  “don’t get stuck in one format”.

Argentea Gallery http://argenteagallery.com/

Swift as a Shadow runs 16th February – 25th March 2017

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images from http://www.sophiehedderwick.com/, Argentea Gallery http://argenteagallery.com/ and Twitter 18th March 2017

A Liquidity of Imagery

Informing Contexts

Week 4 Reflections, MA Falmouth University

There is a regular disjoint between subject, photographer and viewer.  Subjects can manipulate and be manipulated, photographers are regularly making choices which are significant to the way a viewer perceives an image. Devoid of an understanding and a passage of data between all parties can invite this disjoint.

There are three tiers to consider when dealing with the making of an image, firstly the subject who, if it is human, responds and reacts to the camera and the instructions delivered from the photographer.  In the ‘pose’ there is a response to ‘image conditioning’, the self conscious but also expectation conscious case for the camera is struck, steeped in expectation, in cliche, in power, culture, ethnicity, climate, fashion.  The pose so often will conform to behavioural norms. Barthes provides us with a description of the effort to strike the pose: “I don’t know how to work on my skin from within. I decided to let it drift over my lips and in my art is a faint smile which I mean to be indefinable in which I might suggest along with the qualities of my nature my amused consciousness of the whole photographic ritual”. R Barthes, 1993 Camera Lucida.

The second tier is the photographer who is also struck by conscious image conditioning, knowing the subject is posed in the context of that moment of existence and that as the image maker she/he is deliberating over the need to arbitrate between the subject, the technology to hand and the image that will ensue.  John Szarkowski reminds us “Photography is a contest between a photographer and the presumptions of approximate and habitual seeing. The contest can be held anywhere…” and he goes on to describe the meaning and patterns in composing “To quote out of context is the essence of the photographer’s craft. His central problem is a simple one: what shall he include, what shall he reject? The line of decision between in and out is the picture’s edge. The photograph’s edge defines content. It isolates unexpected juxtapositions. By surrounding two facts, it creates a relationship. The photographer edits the meanings and patterns of the world through an imaginary frame. This frame is the beginning of this picture’s geometry. It is to the photograph as the cushion is to the billiard table”.  John Szarkowski – from The Photographer’s Eye by John Szarkowski, former director of the photography division of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The third tier is the point at which the image conditioning is at large, it may be a poster in an alleyway, glossily reproduced in a magazine or left to the global moment of transmission on the web.  The viewer perceives the image in her/his own context and visual conditioning. The liquidity of imagery flows like a lava across the surface of the globe in milliseconds, yet the viewer will have a sole moment of receipt, they will be making fixated judgements, responses, liking, disliking, evoking, provoking.  The act of viewing will be within the context of their emotion, culture and place. Krauss quotes Bourdieu “It is the thesis of Pierre Bourdieu that photographic discourse can never be properly aesthetic, that is, can have no aesthetic criteria proper to itself and that, in fact, the most common photographic judgement is not about value but about identity, being a judgement that reads things generically” Krauss, R 1984 A note on photography and the simulacrum in October, Vol 31, Winter 1984.

My proposition is that in the image world that pervades Capitalism and its essentially bound driver we know as Materialism which is the flow of desire and need; imagery is the liquid of want (the world of advertising was worth £550 bn in 2016 https://www.statista.com/statistics/273288/advertising-spending-worldwide/ globally). Imagery, whether stills or video, is the primary source of stimulation penetrating the eyes of the consumer.  The investment is gigantic. Thus the skill of the commissioner of advertising imagery is to strike a powerful alignment between the subject, photographer and viewer. Any potential disjoint is carefully manipulated and engineered out of the equation.  The subject is compliant, the photographer is obedient and the viewer passively primed to receive and obey.  Here, image conditioning is a controlling construct of the Adman/woman.  An idealised image world is created at great magnitude.

In “Ways of Seeing” (1970) art critic John Berger writes insightfully about publicity, the image and the essence of social relationships, “Publicity proposes to each of us that we transform ourselves, or our lives, by buying something more. This more, it proposes, will make us in some way richer – even though we will be poorer by having spent our money. Publicity persuades us of such a transformation by showing us people who have apparently been transformed and are, as a result, enviable. The state of being envied is what constitutes glamour”. He goes on “Publicity is never a celebration of a pleasure-in-itself. Publicity is always about the future buyer. It offers him an image of himself made glamorous by the product or opportunity it is trying to sell. The image then makes him envious of himself as he might be. Yet what makes this self-which-he-might-be enviable? The envy of others. Advertising is about social relations, not objects. Its promise is not of pleasure, but of happiness: happiness as judged from the outside by others. The happiness of being envied is glamour.

The discriminating viewer offers a tiny moment of seeing time to the advertiser, thus the skill is to combine text with imagery in the ad world, to quote Barthes, “Anchorage is the most frequent function of the linguistic message and is commonly found in press photographs and advertisements. The function of relay is less common (at least as far as the fixed image is concerned); it can be seen particularly in cartoons and comic strips. Here text (most often a snatch of dialogue) and image stand in a complementary relationship; the words,..” Barthes Image Music Text,1977 p41.  Barthes citing cartoons and comic strips is a strong analogy to the speedy, identifiable and penetrating image that is bound into the product that is being promoted.  Visual signals are crafted to ‘fit’ the viewer’s decoding of the commodity being conveyed. Hall analyses the coding that is essential in the ad world, he states  “The level of connotation of the visual sign, of its contextual reference and positioning in different discursive fields of meaning and association, is the point where already coded signs intersect with the deep semantic codes of a culture and take on additional, more active ideological dimensions. We might take an example from advertising discourse. Here, too, there is no ‘purely denotative’, and certainly no ‘natural’, representation. Every visual sign in advertising connotes a quality, situation, value or inference, which is present as an implication or implied meaning, depending on the connotational positioning”.  StuartBerger  Encoding, decoding 1999 the cultural studies reader London Routledge p513.  Barthes remarks on the connotative levels of signifiers, “have a close communication with culture, knowledge, history, and it is through them, so to speak, that the environmental world invades the linguistic and semantic system. They are, if you like, the fragments of ideology.”

There is a cultural and aesthetic conditioning that codes the ad world imagery.  Colour palettes define brands; cultural norms underpin the code for happiness, for expression; there is a tight control of these codes.  The idealised, the conforming, the gathering and clustering of imagery are managed for personalised expectation. Does one conform and comply with the materialism in order to belong?

Whilst brands spend time and money on differentiating from each other, there is an acknowledged compression of imagery, a stylised ‘bandwidth’ in which imagery can become cliched or brand-match, depending on the viewer’s level of acceptance or perhaps irritation. There is some concern around the impact of the idealised on the real world experience of individuals, Callen notes “visual images are, then, potent mediators of the lived experience of the body, our own and others, giving us ways of conceptualising and describing the bodily.  In pictorial images we recognise likeness or difference we identify ourselves or find a different other than the other which equally powerfully serves to reinforce at image of our own bodily existence”. Anthea Callen A. Ideal Masculinities, An anatomy of Power, chapter 52 The visual cultural reader edited by Nicholas mirzoeff 2012 p 603

Plato’s cave is a powerful analogy that gives us a tool to remember that the projected ad world isn’t reality, it can be a deceitful construct, defined by the cavemen who want to prevent escape to the fresh, cleaner air of the ‘real’. Kraus continues “with the total collapse of difference, this radical implosion one finds oneself entering the world of the simulacrum a word where as in Plato’s cave, the possibility of distinguishing between reality and phantasm between the actual and the simulated is denied”. Krauss, R 1984 A note on photography and the simulacrum in October, Vol 31, Winter 1984.

By way of three examples of some ‘progress’ in the ad world.

The Image world of the ad’ world is laden with norms and a restricted bandwidth defining normal. There are now major brands which are embracing a wider view of the reality of society. Here are two examples, the US brand, London Fog which features a gay married couple who are married, they share the gaze to the camera, thus a degree of equalises is coded into the image, yet maintain the norm of attractive, well dressed confident men as Berger terms the “envy of others”.  Yes London Fog reverts to its apparent misogynistic norm when it commissions the image of the female modelling a raincoat which in reality would be unlikely to worn in the street on a rainy day as posed. 

Smirnoff applies the index of 3 varieties of coupling in its drink ad, whilst the implication is that alcohol equates to happiness (the consistent ad theme) there is a visual gesture to the modern.