Autumn 1994

Pictures for rent

Stock photography makes up a corporate vernacular that informs almost all levels of graphic design

Photography, like typography, is technically, historically and aesthetically wedded to graphic design. Yet, unlike type, photography is rarely accorded attention as one of graphic design’s primary resources. Histories of photography usually focus on inventions, genres and influential photographers – ignoring the relationship of the medium to graphic design and the ubiquitous but less fashionable area of ‘stock photography’, a sub-genre defined by agencies and researchers as ‘pictures for rent’.

Stock photography offers a way of studying images as a form of currency that funds advertising, text books, real-estate pamphlets, greetings cards, in-flight magazines, book covers, posters and annual reports. It cuts through the genres – and what I would call class distinctions – of graphic design. This kind of photography is not the award-winning sort commissioned by top art directors, nor is it a heartfelt grass-roots expression; it is indeed a kind of corporate vernacular that informs a vast amount of graphic design practised in both amateur and professional settings.

The two major sources for stock photos are outtakes from commissioned shoots (often of a documentary nature) and photographs shot specifically as ‘stock’. It is difficult to trace the history of the phenomenon because it is both a border activity – an unrespected sub-genre – and a transient, commercially driven undertaking. Nor is stock photography a stable, continuous or discrete entity. Some of the major strands that have contributed to its development include the early stereoscope businesses, the formation of picture agencies that accompanied the expansion of magazine publishing in the 1920s and the formalisation of what I will call the ‘stock market’ in images in the 1970s. It is inappropriate to look for a single point of origin for stock photography, since the industry has grown out of the diverse areas of photographic production and consumption …

First published in Eye no. 14 vol. 4, 1994

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