Countershape Marketing

Looking the other way: Paul Fusco and the power of implication in marketing

Paul Fusco
Paul Fusco, 1968 Robert F. Kennedy’s Funeral Train.

Paul Fusco is quoted in The Guardian this morning.

In 1968, I was assigned by Look magazine to get on the train bearing Robert F Kennedy’s remains from New York to Washington DC. Barred from photographing the Kennedy family in their private car, I took note of the people lined up along the track to pay their last respects, and decided to photograph them. I was surprised that the other photographers on the train either failed to notice them or chose not to take pictures. These photos, first published more than 30 years after RFK’s death, are among the among most important I’ve ever taken.

In these poignant photos, you begin to appreciate the full weight of what Senator Kennedy’s assassination meant for some of the ordinary people of the USA, for this the most important part of the news story. This is a lovely example of what I call Countershape territory. By countershape I mean what is being suggested rather than what is immediately obvious – is an elite skill for any creative person.

Other examples are easy to find once you get your eye in. Composer John Cage’s revolutionary piece 4’33” (1952) eliminates the sounds of instruments. While each musician within the performance has the potential to break the silence, they restrain themselves; they remain tacet. Cage (in what he considered his most important work) instead invites us to listen to the absence of music as if it were music.

In visual art, the countershape it is easy to spot. In Robert Mapplethorpe’s black and white photographs, beautifully-lit skin is surrounded by a dark negative space, which as a shape is as pleasing as the model’s body and contributes equally to the photograph’s composition.

While British artist Rachel Whiteread’s work solidifies the countershape and on famous piece House, (1993) casts the interior of an entire Victorian house in concrete – so that  the interior spaces of the rooms inside became solid objects.

But what about Marketing and Advertising? It takes chutzpah to omit the product completely such as in this example of a press execution for Volkswagen[i]. Its copy reads Volkswagen City Emergency Brake. For when you get distracted. The image is of the distraction: a partially clad woman in a window, and you’ll notice how the car with the special brake is absent.

Volkswagen Das Auto
Volkswagen Das Auto

Not a bad example of the use of countershape territory, although it seems to be fairly sure that its potential audience will find themselves attracted to women.

[i] Adam&Eve DDB Credits – Executive Creative Director: Jeremy Craigen. Art Director: Matt Gay. Copywriter: John Long. Head of Art: Daniel Moorey. Designer: Pete Mould. Group Account Director: Jonathan Hill, Jason Lusty. Account Director: Josh Davoren. Photographer: Jason Hindley.


Left unsaid, negative space and Robin Houghton

My art teacher called the space around the object being painted its countershape. This is a term that seems to have fallen out of favour, but the countershape or negative space around an object can be as beautiful as the object itself, as in the sinuous darkness around the bodies or flowers in a Robert Mapplethorpe photograph.

Having spent some time in Japan lately, it is easy to see how the use of space and emptiness is ingrained in the Japanese aesthetic. Often objects within a composition are there to draw attention to emptiness. Even this randomly chosen picture from The Korin Album, 1802 by Nakamura Hôchû displays an attunement to negative space. Buddhism invites people to experience emptiness as something welcome and comforting.

Things are a little different in the West. But I am drawn to writers who imply without explicitly saying. It’s as if they are pointing to the emptiness, and showing just how populated it really is.

Leaving room for the reader’s imagination to infer meaning, and allows writing to contain something of the consciousness of the reader. It also opens the door to ambiguity. Sometimes this is done with silence. When in Shakespeare’s Othello, the Machiavellian villain Iago is finally confronted he says Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. From this time forth I never will speak word. This infuriating silence has given us a legacy of centuries of wondering about Iago’s ‘motiveless malignity’ as Coleridge called it. If Iago had explained why he hated Othello and destroyed his life, he would be a little less memorable and perplexing.

I recently met an excellent poet called Robin Houghton. Her new pamphlet, The Great Vowel Shift frequently manages to imply a great deal in many of her poems without concretely expressing it. This is best exemplified in her poem Ellipsis which talks about playing scrabble with a woman whose memory is failing. The poem is about the gaps where everything important is deftly implied.

I lay a blank tile    tell her it’s a D    five minutes
noises in the corridor    she asks about tea

I say    that nice young man from the kitchen
will be here soon    let’s listen out

she asks   is it my go    asks   about the blank
I tell her it’s a D   her face   a perfect dot-dot-dot

While in The Last she writes about something that ‘My mother wouldn’t explain’. I just love the simple and yet completely successful way this poem addresses a change in a woman’s life without ever being explicit about what in childhood was unmentionable. Just lovely. Find Robin’s excellent blog here.

The Last

They’ve been coming since posters were invented:
sometimes in dreams, to the tipping of cowboy hats

or dressed in Liverpool shirts. Each one appeared
in my diary, in code. My mother wouldn’t explain,

I couldn’t ask. And still they would come, insistent.
They left my body as they found it: I never wanted

them to stay, or change things. It’s been a while since
I wrote a diary. I don’t know how many there were,

I wasn’t counting. Too busy getting on with
the business of getting on. For the last, though,

I would have thrown a party, marked the occasion
in some way, worn something red, if I had known.

               Poem (C) Robin Houghton 2014.