Winter 2006

Made in their image

In a world crammed with pictures, both art directors and agencies are compelled to rethink their roles

Hipgnosis didn’t use stock for the 1975 Pink Floyd album Wish You Were Here. But stock imagery, and all that was ‘bad’ about it in 1975, was clearly in their minds when they produced their ironic take on that archetypal businessmen-shaking-hands shot. The standoffish relationship between graphic design and stock might well have some history: the subject has been investigated by Abbott Miller (‘Pictures for rent’, Eye no. 14 vol. 4) and by John O’Reilly (‘All of life is captioned here’, Eye no. 40 vol. 10), whose trenchant critique of stock photography brochures led to a job with Getty. In the meantime, everything has changed.

Today, love it or hate it, stock – preshot, image library photography – is everywhere. I counted 48 attributed library images in one randomly chosen issue of The Times. Illustrated adverts and unattributed smaller images undoubtedly tripled that figure. And The Times is a drop in the ocean. The world is full of licensed imagery, and that, in turn, is a drop in the ocean of all the other imagery that inhabits the ether in countless websites, desktops, messages and phones. And it is not going away: quite the contrary.

Yet it is hard to find anyone (other than an image bank employee) to admit a fondness for preshot. Most designers I canvassed were almost unnecessarily insistent that they never use it, and those who do were a bit apologetic.

Peter Higgins, of Wire Design, speaks for many: ‘We don’t use it every day; in fact, not much at all,’ he says. ‘But when you need something specific, like a 1940s image, then we have little option. We usually commission or take our own photography. Some sectors just don’t have that time. I never use image libraries for anything creative other than style examples…’