Stock Photography: Creating Culture

August 6th, 2007Stephen Mayes

On the role of commercial stock imagery in society

The most overused and undervalued word in the commercial photo industry is surely “Creative”, most often used to describe anything to do with the origination of photography. According to my dictionary the word is defined as, “having the quality of something created rather than imitated” – some joke given the endlessly repetitive torrent of imagery that is flooding the Internet with “choice” for our customers. On offer from $1 to $100,000 there are millions and millions of copies of, er the same thing, demanded by the client and supplied with cheerful alacrity by photographers and production departments all keenly eyeing each other for inspiration, tweaked with minor stylistic and ethnic adjustments to catch the nuance of today’s season.

It’s a familiar rant that we’ve heard before, and having spent too many of my own years feeding the machine I’m not dissing the process. Actually I am endlessly impressed by the imagination, intelligence and energy that my peers bring to the task; my issue is not with the work but with the definition. The word “Creative” just isn’t adequate to describe what we do; it’s not that our work isn’t creative but rather that there’s a more important element that is overlooked and as in so many things, the choice of language limits our understanding.

I argue that our work in the stock industry is less creative and more cultural.

We are not making art (although I see art in the work we do) but we are making culture, and our impact is huge. Hundreds of thousands of our images are sold every month, reproduced infinitely in print, broadcast and online. Wherever there is electricity, we perpetrate our vision of the world. Inspired by capitalism we scour the ads, we sweat the demographics and we wring the juice out of every morsel of research that might indicate a market; then we fight to find the smartest, neatest, quickest ways to codify what we know about our world and we express it in pictures. We are absorbing culture and reflecting it back, but as with any mirror it is not a literal image – it is a distortion or more politely, an interpretation. Nobody pretends that our images are actual representations of the world, and since Richard Steedman and Tony Stone introduced the word “conceptual” to the stock industry we understand that we are all about expressing ideas. We dissect our experience of life and reconstitute it in a special visual code that is designed to communicate ideas in a nanosecond. It’s not a neutral process and our reflection has a peculiar cast to it, filtered by our northern mainly Caucasian, urban, middle-class perspective. Our interpretations flood back into the world in the gazillions of images consumed hour-by-hour and minute-by-minute throughout the world, and in doing so we shape the very culture that we observe. We hold a powerful and influential role in the modern world that is increasingly dependent on visuals to define identity – our images shape how we see ourselves as a society. That’s culture.

Not only does the use of the word “creative” understate the value of our photography departments, it also distracts from some of the most creative work in the industry. What is really creative is the business of business: arguably there is more diversity in our business models than in the imagery we represent: rights managed, royalty free, rights ready, micro stock, mid stock, subscription from stock producers, distributors and aggregators… The CEO’s office – now that’s a truly Creative Department! Let the rest of us get on with the real work of making culture.

Written 2007 while COO Americas of commercial stock agency Image Source