Thursday, May 21, 2020

Looking back at Stock Photography - Twenty Years Postmortem

The time of death is approximate.  The body still twitches like a rat in a trap that looks dead but still jerks when you poke it.  And it was an actual rat (not the rats that ran and destroyed the industry) that got me thinking about stock photography again.

There was a rat in the sub-basement of my studio.  He’d made a little nest, and in the process, a big mess.  Since I was locked-in during the Coronavirus pandemic I masked-up and risked getting the Hantavirus (a nasty rodent-borne disease) and went on Rat-Patrol.  And I killed the rat-bastard.  After disposing of the body (in a shallow, unmarked grave) I had to clean up his mess.  He’d made a nest of pink insulation bits, some twigs, and torn up paper.  I guess I’d left him a lot of building material in the form of paper products; books and catalogs and stuff I saved only to throw away twenty years later. 

While cleaning up the mess I took notice of the paper bits he’d used to line his nest and it was interesting.  It was like a rat nest-motivated archeological dig into what kind of print-media rats prefer for building material.  I’d saved a lot of old stock photography print catalogs from the 1980s and 1990s and he’d used pieces of them to line his nest.  For some stupid reason I thought there might be valuable images in those catalogs.  I had years of catalogs from FPG, Ultrastock, Omni-Photo, Photo Researchers, Taurus Photos, Nonstock, Uniphoto, Sharpshooters, West Light, SuperStock, Tony Stone Images, Photonica, The Stock Market, Comstock, Masterfile, The Image Bank and a whole host of niche agencies.  It was interesting to see which catalogs were chewed and repurposed as rat-mansion building material.  Rat-man ripped nesting-paper from most of the catalogs but his favorite was the Comstock catalog, it was shredded!  There was one catalog he didn’t damage and that was the Image Bank catalog which still looked fresh from the mailbox.  He’d chewed bits and pieces of most all the other catalogs but left Image Bank intact while completely trashing Comstock.  I think that rat might have been the reincarnation of one of my 1980s stock agency editors!  Did Ratman possess a sense of aesthetics?  Perhaps he liked the Pete Turner photos in the Image Bank catalog so he didn’t eat them?  Maybe the abysmally boring Tom Grill photos from the Comstock catalog put him to sleep in his nest?  Has anyone ever done a study on the artistic inclinations of average Arizona Roof Rat?  I’m beginning to think Rats might make better stock-photo editors than most of the dweebs in the industry today.  After cleaning up the mess and destroying Ran-man’s mansion of twig-reinforced stock catalog page bits I took the remnants of the catalogs into my studio and had a look at their interior pages, twenty-plus years after I’d ‘archived’ the stuff. 

Thumbing through the rat-chewed pages of the catalogs I came to the realization that I should have thrown them all away long ago.  My god we worked hard to produce tens of thousands of generic pictures for generic clients!  I viewed page after page of variations on dumb themes; hideous stock-photography ‘concepts’ with lab-coated women staring longingly at test tubes, group photos showing virtually every ethnic group except extraterrestrials, strategically placed leaves in the foregrounds of imminently average landscape photos; and don’t get me started on the color-coordinated hard hat aesthetic of the ‘working man’ portrait!  Then there’s the ‘artistic’ pictures, often in black and white or ‘creatively blurred.’  Stock photography had its own standard cliché’s: ‘winning’ businessmen running on a track and breaking the tape, road-signs in offices that say ‘stop,’ or ‘one-way,’ or ‘detour.’  Then there’s the businessman tied up in red tape, and the myriad of lame variations of the chess piece, grids, glows and smoke.  We’ve got men in mazes, men covered in cobwebs, stopwatches illustrating ‘deadlines,’ and, in all obviousness, the freaking handshake, each one more ‘original’ than the last by virtue of different colored backgrounds.  There’s the mini-blind phase of 1992 –please step away from the goddamn window!  The later catalogs featured pages of the computer keyboard, the floppy disk, the mouse, the long-exposure zoom effect done to the monitor, and the telephone modem connector shot with the Spiratone Star Filter.  Interspersed, there were a few actually interesting pictures.

And these were the ‘good old days’ when the pictures were shot by professionals and were better than the amateur stock photo schlock online now.  Today those pictures aren’t worth the ones and zeros used to encode them!  And… and… clients paid Real Money for those photos.  You could make a living producing those pictures unlike today when the average license-fee won’t buy you a cup of coffee!

There was nothing worth saving in any of those catalogs, not even the ones with my own pictures in them. 

I wondered, given that advertising imagery was, in fact, the dominant art-form of the latter 20th century, if those catalogs had any value as part of the ‘commercial art historical record’ of the era?  So I went to eBay and had a look at ‘picture books and catalogs.’  I thought that some of the artsy-fartsy catalogs like Photonica or Nonstock might have some value but no; there were a few for sale but they weren’t selling.  The ‘mainstream’ stock catalogs from agencies like The Stock Market or SuperStock had no value.  The only catalogs that had any value at all were from The Image Bank.  I suspect this is because of the recognition of the Image Bank brand name and not specifically the images themselves.

Since The Image Bank catalogs I saved are undamaged and have some value I think I’ll list them on eBay and see if they’ll sell for a few bucks (gotta recoup my rat-trap investment).  I could put the Comstock catalog on the top of a pile and donate the rest of them to ‘Habitat for Rodents,’ but they’ll all be trashed instead.

There are lessons to be learned here and they’re less about rat behavior and more about photographer behavior.  Stock photos that were outtakes from assignments were vastly superior than those shot specifically for stock licensing.  The assignment photographer was making imagery with intent.  They knew the client and the story they were hired to tell.  The ‘shot for stock’ photos were all generic images shot for generic clients and looked ‘dumbed-down.’  Anything remotely conceptual had to be really simple in order for the, as yet unknown, client to ‘get it.’  Of course there was no individual photographers’ style present, all the photographers and their pictures were interchangeable.  Stock photography emphasized ‘content’ over ‘artistry.’  Stock photography is just that, stock, as in commonplace hole-in-the-layout filling content.

Of course it’s all worse today with a market dominated by amateurs throwing everything at the wall hoping something will stick for six dollars, before a sixty percent ‘seller’ commission, 120 days after the sale. 

It’s amazing how much money was spent on printing and postage in the pre-internet days.  And at least some of the photos were actually printed –which is certainly more permanent than some JPEG on the Getty Images website –that is until some rat makes a nest of the catalog.

May 21, 2020
Week 10 of Cronavirus Pandemic 

Tuesday, April 14, 2020



April 14, 2020.  As I write, we are partway through week five of the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic.  It is day #33 of the ‘Quarantine’ and ‘social-distancing.’  Normally I don’t begin an essay with the date but ‘normal’ went out the window last month.

Unless you’ve been off-planet (lucky you) for the past couple of months you know that, right now, we’re not working or leaving our homes except for ‘essential’ things like going to the grocery store or the pharmacy (or, strangely, a gun shop).  Restaurants are open but only for take-out.  The restaurant business is being hit especially hard and that is what brings me to the topic of this essay.

It’s really difficult for an artist to get an exhibition in an actual brick-and-mortar gallery, or any other type of physical space.  It’s even more difficult for relatively unknown artists like myself.  Because of this institutional and built-in difficulty I’ve found myself doing exhibitions wherever I can and right now I have a small exhibition at a restaurant.  My artworks aren’t even in the restaurant’s dining room; I’m in a hallway.  Despite this, one piece has been sold.  I would have been paid at the end of the exhibition but that was three weeks ago and the restaurant is closed except for drive-up orders. 

To simplify:
  • ·         I have an exhibition in a ‘non-traditional’ space where people don’t go to see art primarily.
  • ·         One piece was sold.
  • ·         Coronavirus closes the restaurant and other ‘non-essential’ businesses.
  • ·         No one is seeing the artwork.
  • ·         The restaurant is holding my portion of the print-sale until the end of the exhibition.
  • ·         The exhibition is over, but still on the wall.  Restaurant open for take-out only.
  • ·         No dine-in so no one can see my artwork (same as storing it in a box in my studio).
  • ·         Zero potential for any more art sales.

Usually it’s no problem to wait for an exhibition to close to be paid.  Usually.  In fact that’s usually how it’s done, but the novel-virus has created a novel situation.  It is clear that whatever the outcome of ‘Coronavirus 2020,’ many businesses will fail.  Many of the failed businesses will be small businesses and many of them will be restaurants.  I came to the harsh realization that the restaurant that owes me money for the sale of an artwork could easily go belly-up.  I’ve been there before (although not because of a global pandemic) and when a business that owes you money goes out of business, you don’t get paid.

I’ve been in business for myself for decades and one thing I really, really, hate, hate is to make a ‘money call.’  But I sucked it up and made the call and it was OK.  The next day I went to the restaurant, where I found one employee and no customers, and picked up a check.


My artworks remain on the wall in the hall.  Right now the same number of people can see my artworks in the restaurant as would see them stored in boxes in my studio: zero.  Eventually the restaurant will re-open (assuming they don’t go out of business first) and then the artworks will be seen again.  There is the fear that the restaurant will go out of business and close with my artworks inside it.  But I’m not worried about some landlord claiming “everything in the building is my asset now.”  Technically that’s theft, I know because I’ve been down that road too.  I’ve got a consignment contract and I’d get the artwork back.  But I hope they make it and survive the pandemic.

If they don’t make it I’ve at least got my money. 
And I’m going to need it.
Things are going to get worse in ways we cannot predict.

Hunkered-down (with an extra couple of hundred bucks in the bank).
April 14, 2020
Covid-19 Day #33

Thursday, March 26, 2020


I thought I might take a hike & do some photography during this time of quarantine, I’d really like to get outdoors. But I’m staying put instead. There is a petroglyph site near the Phoenix metro area. The trailhead is in a neighborhood. I figured I’d drive to Phoenix, park at the trailhead, hike one mile to the site & photograph the petroglyphs. Easy. Drive in the car alone, do the hike alone keeping six-plus feet away from anyone I might meet along the way. Hike back to the car, drive home alone. Easy & safe. The hike would give me some much-needed fresh air outdoors, and the new photos would give me something to work on while ‘social-distancing.’ 

But then I saw a video online of a woman who ‘violated’ the quarantine & went swimming alone in a hotel pool. The cops came, dragged her out of the pool, beat her up & arrested her. Not the best way to deal with the situation but not surprising in the least. That made me think of the ‘what-ifs.’ What if some asshole Arizona cop or sheriff decided I shouldn’t be there? Trump has already emboldened every redneck ‘authority’ figure in America, now with this pandemic, the cops are pretty much unlimited (like beating up the hotel swimmer). Do I need to risk arrest, detention or potentially being killed by a cop because I went for a hike during a ‘pandemic?’ Gun sales are up too. What if some local resident redneck decided I was ‘dangerous’ and shot me? (Rednecks do think guns are the solution to all problems.) Or, what if Fearless Leader Trump or Governor Douchebag makes some ‘declaration’ while I’m out & I can’t get home? 

These may be extreme concerns, but they’re not outside the realm of possibility. So far the Trump response to the coronavirus has been one giant fuckup with a pack-o-lies topped off with a big pile of fear. Only a fool trusts ‘the authorities’ today.

As much as I’d like to TRY to live a ‘normal’ life during these times I have to consider the dangers of BOTH the virus and ‘authorities’ actions because of it. 

So I’m staying home & I’ll be a studio photographer for the foreseeable future.


Thursday, January 2, 2020


I liked you better when I knew less about you.  Now that I know what I know I have to go.  Sorry but I can’t carry on, I don’t want to be guilty by association.  I don’t want to be your enemy, but I can’t be your friend.  Allow me to explain.

These are polarizing times indeed.  It’s a zero-sum game out there and you’re either with us or against us, it’s black or white, friend or enemy, there is no compromise.  We did it to ourselves with politics and propaganda, we’ve split into teams, or more like opposing armies; too bad so few realize it’s all us versus us.

Purposely polarized politics has laid bare the true hearts of hypocrites, liars, racists and rubes.  Your ignorance and hatred has always been there, but it’s been closeted and hidden away until an agreeable political party emboldened you.  What was once whispered among the like-minded now has a bullhorn, and the levers of power, and it’s OK now to express your hate.  Apparently you’ve always been like this, and now that you’re comfortable expressing it, now I know.  I can’t change you, but I don’t have to associate with you either.

I’m just fine with ending friendships or other relationships over ‘politics.’  In today’s world ‘politics’ exposes ones’ personal truths and those truths are often toxic, ill-informed and hateful.  I can’t be a party to hate.

Once I disagreed with a friend about a war that didn’t need to be fought.  He vehemently told me I “hated America” and hung up the phone without discussion or debate.  He never justified his position and I never called him back.  Once I knew his true heart, continuing any sort of friendship would have been disingenuous on my part.  I don’t want to be a fake friend.  And I don’t want to fight because I know any ‘fight’ or ‘debate’ would accomplish nothing, so I walked away from that ‘friendship.’ 

There was a time I would have let that slide and would have filed his warmongering enthusiasm away in the recesses of my brain but I’m too old now to feign acceptance of his mindset.  (Read my blog entry, ‘Now that I’m officially old.’)  I’m not desperate for friends and will no longer tolerate the inadequacies of others just to have someone around.  I’d rather be alone, happy and comfortable, than be in a ‘friendship’ with someone who makes me uncomfortable and unhappy because I know that, secretly, they hate [fill in the blank: Mexicans, Muslims, Blacks, Liberals, et al]. 

I’ve had to end another longtime friendship recently.  It’s painful to have do this but to protect myself against his toxicity, I’ve got to go.  Please note that here and in the opening paragraph I wrote I have to go.  I never asked anyone to change because I know they won’t.  I won’t argue or ‘debate’ these things with them because, again, they won’t hear it.  It’s on me.  I will go.  I ask nothing from them except, now that I know your true heart, please leave me alone, I am not like you.

The thing is, for this one, I’d let his subtle racist remarks slide by over the years.  When he’d called African-Americans ‘those people’ it made me uncomfortable, but I let it go.  I didn’t say anything.  Maybe he didn’t mean that in a racist way?  Later, when he blamed an uptick in local crime on ‘the Blacks’ I was pretty sure he had racist tendencies but I let that go too.  But I guess I didn’t really let it go because those statements got filed away in the recesses of my mind as part of my ‘personality profile’ of the guy.  Still, to keep the friendship, I let his past remark slide again and said nothing to him, but I was becoming more and more uncomfortable feeling that the guy’s true nature wasn’t something I really cared to have in my life.  His third strike came when he went after President Obama on social media.  He hated the ex-President although he never stated just why.  He never wrote, “I dislike Obama because of this or that policy,” his statements were just typical Obama-hatred.  When I read his words I was left to conclude that his Obama problem was not about policy since he’d mentioned none, but rather either Obama’s Democratic Party affiliation or the color of his skin.  (And I already knew he didn’t like Democrats or Liberals or Progressives.)  This all created an uncomfortable conflict in me (cognitive dissonance) and I had to take a mental step back and carefully, critically, analyze his words and his meaning.  Critical, dispassionate thought and analysis is important and useful.  Sadly the confirmation bias crowd eschews critical thought.  But I don’t and I thought about it a lot.  Reluctantly I came to the only conclusion I could based on his past statements his online Obama-hatred that is he’s probably a racist.

Probably is a passive word.  I never called him a racist specifically although I do believe he’s a casual racist.  ‘Casual racism’ is a kind of subtle, commonplace racism that has become normalized and is infused into society unconsciously.  I feel that casual racism is actually worse than overt racism because the casual racist does not believe they are racist.  The casual racist, like my ex-friend, does not even recognize the effect of their words and beliefs because they are commonplace and normalized.  They’re never called out for their subtle racism and they never critically analyze their quietly racist points-of-view.  This happens because they, mostly, associate with groups of like-minded people.  Within their closed-loop of casual racist buddies everyone agrees, so calling someone a racist epithet doesn’t even register.  It’s only when the casual racist says something offensive to someone outside their group, who they think agrees with them but doesn’t do problems occur.  Usually and ironically when the outsider speaks up and disagrees with them the group labels the disagreeable one an asshole!

Ultimately I did make a comment to one of his anti-Obama statements that quickly led to the disintegration of our friendship.  I commented, “I get that a lot from racists.”

I’d hoped that “I get that a lot…” would initiate one of those discussions we’re so loathe to have and he would defend and define just what he meant… but it didn’t.  Again, he never expressed, “I dislike Obama because of…  He only expressed his unqualified hatred.  I’d hoped he would have tried to explain how I misconstrued his anti-Obama statement.  But he identified himself as a racist by reacting in anger –as if he’d been found out.  He chose to become angry, made some of the typical “I’m not a racist!” statements (because casual racists never consider their own racism) and unfriended and blocked me.  All the while likely thinking I’m the asshole!  I was left thinking: What’s wrong with me?  Am I such a bad judge of character?  What kind of person are you?  And, by association with you, what kind of person am I?

OK, fine.  Too bad.  At least it’s done now.  I will not compromise my morals or ethics.

And now we have ‘Supreme Leader Trump’ in all his orange glory aiding, abetting and emboldening every racist, misogynist, dumbfuck to go ahead and gleefully express their pent-up hatred --it’s OK because the ‘President’ is one of them! 

With an Obama-hating President and an Obama-hating Republican party that protects and empowers the Hateful Cheeto it’s no wonder my ex-friend is perfectly comfortable putting his anti-Obama nonsense on Facebook.  Except he didn’t figure on one thing: not all of his ‘friends’ agree with him and I call BULLSHIT.

During the run-up to the 2016 election and afterwards I’ve had to unfriend a lot of people, including most of my high-school graduating class, because of their politics.  Normally I would never unfriend or discontinue a friendship simply over politics –but we’re no longer living in ‘normal’ political times.  Now I find it easy (and relieving) to unfriend and avoid ‘Republicans.’  The simple reason for this is now, when one identifies as ‘Republican’ it means something different than a mere ‘conservative’ approach to government.  ‘Republican’ now means they’re comfortable with a ‘leader’ who rapes women and mocks the disabled.  They’re OK with imprisoning innocent little children refugees at the border.  They’re cool with replacing National Parks with oil wells and uranium mines.  Today’s Republican is just fine ‘criminalizing’ poverty-stricken employees while giving their low-paying employers tax cuts.  They believe in such nonsense as ‘windmill cancer’ and think they’re tough when they yell at an American Indian to ‘go home.’  And they’ve made it cool to be racist again.

None of this stuff is positive, it’s all bad and I want nothing at all to do with any one of you.  I don’t share your beliefs and hatred, I don’t want to be like you, and I’d rather not associate with you.  You’re toxic and any ‘friendship’ with you is demeaning to me.

Those of you who identify as Conservative, Christian or Republican need to take a long, hard look at what you’re advocating because all of it is BAD.  It’s not true conservatism and it’s not true Christianity.  We know that when you’re among your like-minded friends you don’t have to justify yourself but if you want to play in the big, real world you can’t just yell “Libtard!” and walk away.  You can’t yell, “Fake News!” when your opinion is opposite the facts.  You’re going to have to justify your positions and if you can’t do that you really should shut the fuck up.

You may be a member of the loudest chorus but that does not mean you’re in the majority.

Ending the friendship is on me and I accept responsibility for my misjudgment you, but I don’t owe you an apology, I thought you were better but you’re actually worse.


January 1, 2020