20:30 Vision – 25 years ahead in stock photography

All change, no change: 25 years ahead in the stock industry


July 8th, 2005Stephen Mayes

The French have a phrase for it, “Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose” It means that while everything looks different it’s really pretty much the same, and that is how it will be in the stock industry across the next quarter century: there will be dramatic upheaval in how the business is organized but the core activity will be much as it was for most of the Twentieth Century. Stock is all about instant access and quick-read images that convey meaning in less time than it takes to flip the page; that’s how it was fifty years ago, twenty-five years ago and that’s how it will be twenty-five years hence. But it will look very different. The production process changed dramatically in the last twenty-five years and it’s going to change again.

Stock libraries developed from hunter/gatherers in 1980 to become farmers in 2005, seeding their collections with “needs-lists” of prescribed messages. In recent years it has become a sort of factory farming that uses “genetically modified” creativity to produce the best, fattest examples of the most requested themes in short order. Imagery is produced by quota and processed to precise standards. In the next phase we will move finally from harvesting to manufacturing; we are entering the industrial age of stock. The future lies in fabricated creativity and super-refined output; R&D teams (“creative researchers”) identify high return formulae and the needs-lists will be reduced to circular reinventions of top-selling motifs. It’s a process called “creating relevance” in a culture dedicated to fulfilling expectations rather than creating new needs. And as in all industrial economies ownership of production will move from individuals to corporations; the libraries will of course own the copyright in their products.

In 2030 Getty Images will still exist, although under a different name following its sale to a worldwide media conglomerate based in China. The archives will be fed by thousands of salaried image collectors fanning across the globe to replenish the regional collections. The name of Getty will survive in the title of the philanthropically endowed Getty Museum of Commercial Art (a tax efficient use of free cash) where students will learn about JPEGs and other antiquated technologies. Corbis will still be US-owned although 2030 will see a new management structure announced to continue work on the business plan that’s been in development since 1989. The big bucks will be in distribution rather than creativity so Adobe’s spin-offs and copyists will be the new rulers, offering integrated content and services. A handful of jumbo-sized “independent” producers will fill the creative field driven by needs-lists dedicated to updating and renewal rather than creative expansion; a few specialty agencies and individuals dedicated to innovation and product testing will fill the gaps.

All that is pretty much as is, but the biggest change will be driven by the demographics of advertising, which are being revolutionized. The need to address increasingly granular social segments that exercise ever-greater choices to switch to more interesting viewing will transform advertising from the megalithic voice of the TV networks to a more interactive process. “Shut up and listen” will have been replaced by “Can I interest you…?” as advertising and entertainment blend in a seamless whole. Following advertising’s lead, stock imagery will be competing full on with every entertainment format on screens in your pocket, on your desk, in the home, on the streets and in media still to be invented. 3-D rendering and interactive CGI technology in video games, TV and online will demand a whole new paradigm for imagery. The stock libraries will move from selling photographs to selling photographic elements and customers (corporate and individual consumers) will select the components that are most interesting to them. Image search and selection will be a drag and drop operation that mixes criteria rather than keywords to create a personalised concoction that allows the customer to composite the specific image that they need.

Imagine working from a menu that allows you to select location, gender, ethnicity, social class and activity; drag them into the mixing box and the machine composites the photographic elements onto the wire frame templates to make an image customized for your very specific audience. If you think that’s fanciful, take a look at the latest generation of video games to see how close we are to getting it. Our advertising customers are already deep into the medium and they want everything that it can bring.

The entertainment factor will get added spice in the form of celebrity stock; celebrities keen to commercialize their fame will license their likeness, which for a fee can be added to the mixing box with all the other components controlled by a special software that prevents derogatory combinations. The grand prize for stock will be product placement in imagery, which will be a snap; this tiny detail has separated stock from assignment photography and 70% of the dollars spent on commercial photography to date.

All this combined with footage and audio will help stock photography move from its passive illustrative function to full-on participation in the entertainment world. As interactive screens proliferate, imagery will be ingrained in our ambient culture like music, fed by the visual equivalents of session musicians working for hire. A select group of high-end stock auteurs will take their place as entertainment celebrities, creative stars whose work will be recognized in mainstream culture. Like rock stars they will release new imagery in publicized launches creating media events in their own right, accompanied by merchandized products and fat royalty payments.

What will it look like? As photo illustration overtakes photography all vestiges of reality will finally be removed and life’s imperfections will be over-written. Distracting clutter and extraneous information will be eliminated completing photography’s transformation from its descriptive role to metaphorical expression. While it is possible that romantic love will be depicted in the nude and lovers might even be seen to touch flesh (except in Muslim territories) we will still live in a world where ill people look healthy, all senior citizens live in Los Angeles or Cape Town and all Mom’s food will turn out perfect. Plus ca change…

Licensing models will merge rapidly in the next few years. The notion of rights management will seem quaint in a world where audiences are fragmented and images are customized for every use. Some form of royalty free and subscription will be the norm. Twenty-five years ago a big burger cost $1.50 and a national magazine could pick up a stock photo for under $100. Today the same burger costs $3.50 and the magazine can pick up a stock photo for under $100. In 2030 the burger will cost $8.50, and the stock photo will still be under $100. Plus ca change …

First published in Photo District News, 2005

Stephen Mayes was Director of Art And Commerce Image Archive at time of writing