Photography: Photography is the new copy

Images, whether natural or manipulated on a computer, have usurped words as the new narrative.

In 2006, photography is the new copy. We now expect photographs to tell us a story, whether it's through photo-story realism or contrived composition.

"Copy seems to be making a comeback," Justin Tindall, a creative partner at DDB, says. "But the big news is, it's not coming back as words, it's coming back as pictures.

"And what beautifully written pictures they are; column after column of engaging narrative imagery, made up of persuasive, visual sentences. The press ad is back - using the power of narrative photography to engage the consumer for more than just a few fleeting seconds and, in so doing, reclaiming its unique power."

Tindall is referring to work such as the Stella Artois films campaign from Lowe and DDB's "heaven on earth" ads for Harvey Nichols.

At the photographic agency Magnum Photos, the creative manager, Jess Crombie, says: "Ten years ago, advertising would be about the one iconic image. Now it's more about stories than concepts. It makes you work a little bit harder, which makes you own the image ... It sticks."

Crombie cites the photographer Martin Parr's work for Sony Ericsson's K750, where he took portraits around the world over the course of a year using the camera-phone handset.

Paul Belford, the former creative director at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, describes how his recent Prince's Trust campaign through Clemmow Hornby Inge was shot in a reportage style by the photojournalist Adam Hinton, who divides his time between editorial and advertising work. "The ads look more like editorial than advertising because we want the work to be looked at," Belford says. "The way in which photography is used is just as important as photographic style."

Alongside the move to narrative is a more gritty and real finish to many advertising photographs.

"Advertisers in general want more believability, so they tend to make ads a bit more like editorial," the photographer David Stewart says. Over the past few years, he says his way of working has moved away from the studio and stylised executions.

The art director Jerry Hollens at Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R has worked with Stewart on some high-profile ads. "I think there is a trend to try to represent reality in photography, even if the reality is contrived," he says. "As long as it feels like it is really happening and people go with it, that seems all right."

Hollens attributes this trend, in part, to advertisers' keenness to reach a younger, more elusive audience. "Many more clients are trying to tap into the youth market and talk to them in their visual language and to be seen to be a part of their style. There is less necessity to get the perfect 'clean' image when a mood is more important. As well as a studio build being more expensive, it can all become a bit squeaky clean and soulless."

Nick Georghiou is another photographer who, like Stewart, has seen the move from set-building to location shoots. His work for COI's domestic-violence campaign was all shot on location. "It was a real situation, with a working-class kitchen," he says. "There are so many things that you couldn't create - a bit of dodgy painting or a nail in the wall."

"It's true there's a more naturalistic approach," Georghiou adds. His shot of Wayne Rooney with the George Cross daubed across his chest for Nike's "just do it" campaign is a case in point. "I didn't want it to be retouched," he says. "I liked it real."

Rpm's "one love" push for Umbro, a photographic journal of football- related imagery around the world by the British photographer Levon Biss, is another campaign art directors cite as indicating a simpler, softer approach to advertising, particularly given the testosterone-fuelled images usually associated with football.

At the picture library Corbis, Siri Vorbeck, the European head of creative, has an overview of the sort of images that advertisers are using. She also identifies a trend towards the naturalistic, but more in the sense of images of natural things and using natural colours. She says that although photography is more "messy", when compared with the clean imagery prevalent earlier in the decade, there is also a demand for studied realism, in the style of photographers such as Wolfgang Tillmans and Jurgen Teller.

The other stream of photographic imagery that Vorbeck predicts will be in more demand in the near future is vibrantly colourful images, a la David LaChapelle.

Over at Getty Images, the director of creative research, Rebecca Swift, says just 5 per cent of requests are for black-and-white imagery. Her take on the natural look in photography is all about what Getty has dubbed "One Life" and the demand for images that are less about power and more about personal confidence.

"There's been a major shift away from standing out from the crowd, to being part of a family or a group," Swift says. "The effect of 9/11, the collapse of Enron and the dotcom crash in 2000 have had a major impact on concepts and the way images are used in ads. There is a whole spiritual trend about being at one with yourself."

Getty has moved away from the "over-produced" and "stark" look in favour of a softer approach. "We're looking at pure emotions ... concepts have moved away from powerhouse images of success to more togetherness and tranquillity."

Portraits in advertising are no longer about powerful chief executives in suits, or even employees in different guises. "That's shifted now into starting to use the consumer to sell products," Swift says. She cites Mercedes' "love" campaign, which uses Polaroids to tell personal stories about consumers and their cars.

She also recognises the demand for natural images, using Haagen-Dazs as an illustration of a brand that has moved from the explicit, raunchy image in the 90s to a different approach now, using photographs of the natural elements that make up the ice-cream.

Andrew Zuckerman is in his late twenties. This year, his work for Braun hand-mixers in the US won him a D&AD Global Award for photography with simple images of natural things, such as the action of smashing eggs and spilling milk, frozen in time.

Zuckerman, who is based in New York, working across different media platforms, says: "The aesthetic of photography and advertising is very clean. Everything is in focus. There's the ability to capture things in your photograph that may have happened in many different times and places.

"Post-production is almost as important as production. When I shoot, my final image is in mind and I'm shooting elements to create that image."

Hollens believes the computer is the most important influence on photography in the 21st century. "Images are shot now to be pieced together and what would have been a seemingly simple shot even five years ago, is now shot in seven or eight different parts and put together later, for no other reason than it can be," he says.

"The ease of computers and photographers' knowledge of them allow things to be done that would never have been possible before. It's no surprise that in the D&AD Annual, the section for photography is called 'Photography and Image Manipulation'."

Some great work has, of course, come out of these computer-aided developments - ideas such as those Stella films press ads, Bartle Bogle Hegarty's Robinsons squash posters by Lewis Mulatero and the French ads for PlayStation2 by Dimitri Daniloff.

Belford is of the same mind: "The Apple Mac has opened up many interesting post-production techniques to art directors. So much so, that we will probably see an increased blurring of the boundaries between photography and illustration over the next few years. What's great about computer software is the almost limitless possibilities it gives us to do work that is distinctive."

Crombie believes "the lines are blurring between art and photojournalism". While Zuckerman, who studied at art school before becoming a photographer, thinks "photographers working in commercials are taking more notice of art-world photographs".

Of course, art, photography and commerce are not new bedfellows. Andy Warhol's images from the 60s are some of the most famous reminders of that. But the crossover continues apace. The art photographer Donovan Wylie did a shoot for Invesco last year, where the company was looking to capture a real-life shot of its mountain logo through an artist's lens.

Tindall, however, believes some art photographers might exert too great an influence. "A William Eggleston exhibition about eight or nine years ago sparked a huge trend in 'beauty in the banal' imagery, which seemed to pervade print advertising for years," he notes. "It also produced a generation of advertising photographers who, in my opinion, are now struggling to find a new way of seeing."

"The generated backgrounds and uber-reality that the German photographer Thomas Hannich bought to us about four or five years ago has also become ubiquitous," he adds.

Another blurring in photography seems to have happened to the photographers themselves. In the new age of multitasking and emerging media, the fact that a photographer is good seems to be more important than the particular sort of photography that he or she has been noted for. "There is more crossover from photojournalists and advertising photographers, and fewer photographers being pigeon-holed or being known for just one style," Hollens says.

"Great image-makers such as Nadav Kander, Nick Georghiou and David Stewart turn their hand to anything that interests them."

In all this, the trick with advertising photography will be to adapt to the changing way that consumers view images. It may be that as people spend more time catching ad images on a mobile phone or with a fleeting glance at a computer screen, the narrative photograph will move over and we will revisit the powerful, single, iconic images more associated with past decades of advertising photography.