Stock images, those aggravatingly earnest scenes of modern life that are plastered everywhere on the web, don’t need much help to enter the realm of parody. Sure, when you encounter one in the wild, it can slide by unnoticed. Nothing remarkable about this deliberately unremarkable picture of a Man Petting a Dog accompanying this Internet article about a man petting a dog! But with the tiniest bit of scrutiny, the absurdity reveals itself. Why is that business deal going down in a totally featureless white room? Who is this man smashing his computer with a mallet? Why are all these women laughing into their salads?
Dis Images, a new project from the folks at Dis Magazine, plays brilliantly on these ubiquitous scenes, subverting some of the more common stock image tropes and dialing up the absurdity a few notches for good measure. The images generally stick to the stock image formula: precise, faux-candid moments occurring in inexplicably universal settings. The Platonic ideal of a woman with spaghetti on her head, or whatever other bizarrely specific thing you might be looking for, in hi-res JPEG form.
In some cases, the library’s offerings are indistinguishable from real stock images. The image of Girl with Peanut Butter on Her Finger, by Bryan Dooley, would be right at home atop some blandly written article about the health benefits of peanut-related products. Other images from that series, like the one of the same girl removing her socks while standing on a scattered mess of peanuts, are slightly stranger, but still very much in the realm of what a real stock image might cover.
There are many other images in the library, however, that are beyond even the Shutterstock pale. You’ve got Hot Shirtless Guy Wearing Starbucks Apron (tags, for maximum searchability, include “wholesome,” “unwholesome,” “coffee,” “lifestyle,” “sexy,” and “commerce”). Others include Buxom Lingerie Model Working on Laptop in Front of Plants, Asian Nerd Smiling at Dyson Vacuum, and Nug of Weed Stuck to Lint Roller (all titles my own).
Like most of your standard stock images, these have some strange relationship to reality, almost like an opposite uncanny valley, where the people and objects are real but the situations they’re in don’t quite gel with our real-world experience. And the site’s FAQ outlines this purpose plainly: “Dis Images invites artists to create alternative scenarios and new stereotypes, thus broadening the spectrum of lifestyle portrayal.” That mission statement, though, takes us to the project’s central critique of stock imagery: When is lifestyle portrayal actually lifestyle fabrication?
And if we know that stock images are fundamentally disingenuous and disconnected from reality, why not get even weirder than ladies beaming into their salad bowls? It’s the same type of myth making. The difference is that here, instead of laughing at the pictures, you get to laugh with them.