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