Stock photography is the name given to a particular type of standardized commercial imagery. This largely consists of clichéd photographs of consumer well-being or corporate achievement: the happy couples on sun-drenched beaches pictured in travel adverts, and the well-groomed businessmen shaking hands who tend to grace company brochures. Stock photography is also the name of the industry that manufactures, promotes, and distributes these images for use in marketing, advertising, publishing, and increasingly multimedia products, websites, and other digital platforms (for instance, the sunsets and cloud images one can find on mobile phones). Worth an estimated US$2 billion annually, the industry continues to expand into new areas of image production and supply: its leading corporations own some of the most important historical photographic archives, manufacture and market stock film footage, and compete with traditional sources of photojournalism. Despite the ubiquity of its products, and estimates that it supplies a majority of the photographs used in advertising and marketing, the stock photography industry is largely overlooked by researchers into photography and consumer culture (exceptions include Miller 1999; Frosh 2003; Machin 2004), and is invisible to the general public.
The Emergence And Functioning Of The Stock Photography Industry
Stock photography emerged as a full-fledged, self-conscious industry in the 1970s (on historical precursors see Hiley 1983; Wilkinson 1997). Its main commercial premise is that advertising agencies will find it cheaper, faster, and less risky to “rent” readymade images from an archive than to commission photographers for specific assignments (“assignment photography” is a term used for original or unique product photography projects).
In the 1990s the industry underwent radical reorganization, accompanied by pervasive technological change. Large stock agencies were acquired by yet larger competitors and integrated into global conglomerates in a burgeoning, digitized “visual content” industry. Today stock photography is dominated by three US-based multinational “super-agencies”: in descending order of size, Getty Images PLC; Corbis (privately financed by Microsoft president Bill Gates); and JupiterImages. These conglomerates compete alongside small and medium-sized agencies in a range of specialty fields: lifestyle and marketing imagery, contemporary editorial photography, historical images, sport, celebrities, illustrations and fine art prints, and stock film footage. Getty, for instance, as well as selling clips from its own wholly owned film archives, also distributes footage from Universal Studios films.
Two principal production models determine how stock images are made. In traditional “rights-controlled” or “rights-protected” stock photography, agencies “rent out” images to clients for a limited time period or usage. These images have themselves been acquired from freelance photographers, who get a share of the revenue (usually well below 50 percent) in return, ideally generating long-term income through the multiple resale of each image to many different clients. The images are kept in “stock” by the agency, duplicated, categorized, and keyworded according to content, style, photographer, and potential meanings, before being marketed – formerly through printed catalogs and CDs, today most frequently through agency websites. Prices are negotiated according to type of usage (whether the image is for a print advertisement, product packaging, corporate brochure, etc.), time period, region, and extent of exclusivity, and they can range from several hundred US dollars for use in a small brochure to several thousand for national advertising campaigns.
In the 1990s new digital technologies transformed possibilities for the relatively inexpensive storage, duplication, and distribution of images, giving rise to “royalty-free” (RF) photographs. RF is based on a pay-per-image principle, whereas rights-controlled stock is based on a pay-per-use principle: in contrast to rights-protected stock, when you purchase an RF image it includes a very broad license to use it for almost any purpose as many times as you want. Available individually online, or on CDs or downloadable “virtual CDs” containing anything between 50 and several hundred photographs, RF images are geared to media professionals looking for “low-end,” lower-cost, and instantly available images without the need for exclusivity.
Despite early concerns that RF images would take business away from rights-controlled stock, all the large super-agencies, and many smaller ones, operate both systems side by side. In fact, one of the most conspicuous characteristics of the stock industry in recent years has been the proliferation of new business and production systems. Some of these are borrowed from other media industries (for instance, traditional news wire services), such as paying monthly or yearly subscription fees for an unlimited supply of images, and some are initiatives apparently originating with photographers themselves, such as “community-based” (also called “micro-stock”) websites involving semi-professionals and proficient amateurs and selling images for as little as US$1. In a radical departure from the stock industry’s usual emphasis on providing readymade images, Getty and Corbis will also specifically employ photographers to make new images according to client specifications (assignment photography).
The Look Of Stock Images
Stock photographers have the difficult task of producing images that are simultaneously “generic” – an industry term denoting the photograph’s generality and its ability to be resold for multiple uses – and singular: uniquely suited to the purposes of a particular buyer. To borrow an analogy from the garment trade, a successful image needs to look off-the-shelf and tailor-made. Moreover, since a good example of what a successful stock photograph might look like is set by images that are already displayed in catalogs or websites, the easiest way to create a successful new image is to copy an old one. Hence, notwithstanding the marketing rhetoric of innovation and creativity commonly employed by agencies, the stock system is frequently accused – by clients and industry insiders as well as critics – of encouraging conservatism and the constant reproduction of formulaic images that reflect, construct, and reinforce cultural stereotypes. These images are primarily geared to the needs of consumer advertising, and they almost always focus on middle-class American and European leisure activities (such as beach vacations) and economically privileged and ethnically normative demographic categories (youthful, white, middle-class individuals and families), as well as seemingly universal depictions of “relationships” of kinship, friendship, and romance.
Nevertheless, shifts in advertising and marketing practices since the early 1990s have led to the appearance of less obviously stereotyped image styles and content, including more “realistic” (i.e., grainy and black-and-white) photographs, and images of “ordinary” (that is, not conventionally good looking), “ethnic,” and minority (e.g., gay and lesbian) subjects. These changes in stock images have nevertheless occurred within a limited framework, largely dictated by the cultural backgrounds of photographers and their primary clients, by advertising’s continued promulgation of images of consumer wellbeing, and by the orientation of many advertisements toward audiences with significant disposable income (which means that visibly affluent people tend to be depicted). This conservatism has even created the need for new kinds of niche agencies: not just those serving previously neglected ethnic groups and communities, but also artistic “high-end” agencies, such as Photonica, that specialize in “avant-garde” or “edgy” images: readymade stock photographs that do not look like stock photographs. The irony is that most of these images, edgy or otherwise, are currently subject to what some stock professionals are calling “thumbnail visibility”: the need for photographs to attract a potential client’s attention while occupying a relatively small area of virtual space as part of an image-crowded thumbnail gallery on a computer screen. This tends to discourage pictorial subtlety, and can lead to even more standardized pictures.
Stock Photography, Photojournalism, And The “Visual Content Industry”
In the late 1990s and early 2000s a new term, the “visual content industry,” seemed to be emerging to describe the expansion of the stock industry’s super-agencies into new areas: sport photography, celebrity photography, fine art reproductions, illustration, stock film footage, historical archives, and photojournalism. While the use of this term has not caught on, the expansion has become increasingly institutionalized, as has the apparent blurring of discursive and organizational boundaries between the three great photographic fields of art photography, advertising photography, and documentary photojournalism (known in the trade as “editorial photography”).
It is in the case of editorial photography that this realignment of fields has become most conspicuous in recent years. This is partly because of the acquisition by Getty and Corbis of some of the main historical archives of news photography in the US and western Europe: Getty bought the Hulton Deutsch Collection in 1996 and subsequently renamed it the Hulton Archive. It comprises 15 million images from the major British newspaper and press archives of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Getty also acquired one of the largest North American historical photographic archives when it bought the Image Bank in 1999. Corbis, in the meantime, owns – among others – the 17-million-image Bettmann Archive. Both Getty and Corbis are digitizing these archives very selectively: the cost (including labor and keywording) is estimated at around US$10–20 per image, making the digitization of whole archives economically unfeasible. Historical images selected for digitization are likely to be those that have the greatest commercial potential as crossover material for advertising and marketing use. Our collective visual image of the past may therefore be less and less varied, its putative historical accuracy made subordinate to its current commercial exploitability.
However, the super-agencies are also aggressively expanding into contemporary photojournalism. Getty is leading the way, since 2003 steadily encroaching on the newspaper market long dominated by the global news agencies. Editorial sales accounted for 12 percent of Getty’s revenue in 2005, and the company sees its images in the major newspapers as invaluable advertising for its other products. This encroachment has been facilitated by the hiring of veteran wire service photographers and editors, and a global content sharing and distribution partnership with Agence France-Presse. Reuters and Associated Press (AP) have reorganized their photography divisions in response. AP has even returned fire on Getty’s core business, allowing its staff news photographers to use company equipment to shoot commercial stock images – non-news images of romantic couples etc. – in their spare time.
It is tempting to conclude from these developments that the distinctions between documentary photography and advertising imagery are collapsing entirely, notwithstanding crucial differences between them. However, Getty is at pains to distinguish itself from the “generalist” approach of the wire services by emphasizing the role of specialization: its photographers will remain in their various areas of expertise, and one is unlikely to find photojournalists being encouraged to photograph happy families or make other commercial images in their spare time. Paradoxically, in order to promote itself as the ultimate “one-stop-shop” for all its diverse clients, Getty has shifted away from notions of “visual content” as an abstract universal and is reinstating discourses of field-specific expertise. This gives it a persuasive answer to an obvious question: why would a commercial photography corporation like Getty be any good at photojournalism? Rather than saying “because editorial and stock are types of visual content, and a Getty photographer can shoot both,” Getty says “because we recognize that photojournalism is not like stock, so we’ve hired the best photojournalists.” Of course, a key upshot of Getty’s and Corbis’s expansion into photojournalism is that – just like the historical archive images they own – news and documentary photographs do therefore become more like advertising-oriented stock images: increasingly subject to a commercial logic, severed from immediate contexts of interpretation, and available for multiple resale and recycling in a plethora of contexts, journalistic and otherwise.
- Frosh, P. (2003). The image factory: Consumer culture, photography and the visual content industry. Oxford: Berg.
- Hiley, M. (1983). Seeing through photographs. London: Gordon Fraser.
- Machin, D. (2004). Building the world’s visual language: The increasing global importance of image banks in corporate media. Visual Communication, 3(3), 316–336.
- Miller, J. A. (1999). Pictures for rent. In E. Lupton & J. Miller, Design writing research: Writing on graphic design. London: Phaidon, pp. 121–132.
- Wilkinson, H. (1997). “The new heraldry”: Stock photography, visual literacy, and advertising in 1930s Britain. Journal of Design History, 10(1), 23–38.