Autumn 1994

Pictures for rent

Stock photography receives little attention and wins even fewer awards, but it 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, textbooks, 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.

Rise of the stereoscope
The early market for images in the US was dominated by manufacturers of stereoscopic picture cards. Stereoscopes are viewing devices that create a three-dimensional effect when the eye blends together two photographs of the same scene when taken at slightly different angles. The stereoscope soon became a widespread pastime, and as early as 1859, Oliver Wendell Holmes recognised that the consequence of the new obsession ‘will soon be such an enormous collection of forms that they will have to be classified and arranged in vast libraries as books are now.’

One of the most successful stereoscope companies was Underwood and Underwood, set up in 1880 by Bert and Elmer Underwood of Ottawa, Kansas. The Underwoods began as modest distributors of photo cards produced by other companies, but within four years had what appeared to be a monopoly on the US market. The Underwoods opened branch offices across the country, in Canada and in Britain. In 1891 the company made its headquarters in New York and began to publish its own stereoscopic photos; by 1896 it was supplying photographs to newspapers and magazines, marking its first foray into a ‘pictures for rent’ type of agency, a development that coincided with the rise of half-tone reproductions in American newspapers.

Six years after the Underwood brothers retired in 1925, the firm was reorganised as Underwood and Underwood News Photos, a supplier of historical and contemporary news subjects. This trajectory - from a stereoscope factory producing travel and entertainment images to a news photo specialist was typical of early picture agencies. Three other firms which followed this route were the Brown Brothers, B.W. Kilbourn, and H. Armstrong Roberts. Roberts was the first agency to publish a catalog of its holdings, which was circulated to potential customers in 1920 (previous agencies had simply conducted image research in response to general requests). The catalogue, which did not reproduce every photograph in the collection but included broad types of imagery, introduced a new paradigm to the business, putting the pictures on display like goods in a department store in contrast to the more hermetic model of the archive.

The Roberts agency has survived the mergers of the internationalised photo agencies and is still in business today, with branches in several US cities. In a recent interview, Bob Roberts said that in producing a catalogue, his grandfather invented the notion of ‘stock photography’ - that is, of a speculative market for photographs.

Serving the Mass Media
The rapidly expanding magazine and advertising industries in America and Europe in the 1920s widened the scope and formalised the practices of photo agencies. In Weimar-era Germany, as described by Maud Lavin in Cut with the Kitchen Knife: The Weimar Photomontages of Hannah Höch, publishers of photo weeklies such as Ullstein Verlag had in-house photographers but also commissioned freelancers through agencies such as Dephot (Deutsche Photodienst) and Wide World. Photographs were often shot without the assurance of a commission, discouraging political imagery since generic pictures could be sold to either liberal or conservative publications. Dephot was among the first and most prominent of the photo agencies and developed largely as an intermediary between the photographers and the mass media publications they served.

Just as many of America’s most influential art directors were European émigrés, so too were some of the most important figures in photojournalism. Kurt Szafranski, formerly at Ullstein, emigrated to the US and founded Black Star, one of the first agencies in the country. Kurt Korff also formerly at Ullstein, wrote an outline proposal for an illustrated magazine which was followed closely by publisher Henry Luce in the formation of Life, America’s main photojournalistic outlet, launched in 1936. Otto Bettman, an antiquarian with a life-long obsession with picture-and-book collecting, fled Nazi Germany for New York in 1935 with suitcases full of pictures from which he built the Bettmann Archive. Bettmann organized his picture library in a self-consciously academic fashion and considered his classification system to be the key to his success. He had close ties with New York’s graphic design community, receiving early encouragement from Dr Robert Leslie, whose typesetting firm The Composing Room provided a successful example of a supplier of services to the publishing and design industries. Bettmann’s story is characteristic of other immigrants who set up agencies in US cities, including Globe Photo, Three Lion, Camera Press, and Shostall. Kurt Hutton and Felix H. Man are credited with bringing photojournalism to Britain in the form of Picture Post and Weekly Illustrated, both founded by Stephen Lorant, formerly editor of the Müncher Illustrierte Presse.

A parallel development was the US government’s Farm Security Administration photography project, which employed a group of photographers to document American life. Initiated in 1935, the scheme ran for eight years, during which time Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, Esther, Bubley, and others compiled a photographic record of the country, which served as a public relations tool for New Deal programmes. The FSA dossier was used in government publications and the agency also made its holdings available to newspapers and magazines, from mass-market publications such as Look to small-scale journals. Thus the government founded its own picture agency, which still functions as a historical archive today.

The Stock Market
In the mid-1970s stock photography began to separate into two fields – photo agencies oriented towards advertising and news agencies furnishing documentary images – formalizing a distinction that was already present in most organizations. The shift occurred as companies began to cater solely to the advertising market. Photographer Tom Grill and businessman Henry Scanlon, whose agency Comstock is currently among the largest in the field, are said to have ‘invented’ the contemporary form of stock photography, whereby a photographer shoots prior to any assignment. Scanlon and others have dated this ‘invention’ to about 1974-75, but the same claim was made by H. Armstrong Roberts 50 years earlier. Indeed, it is clear from looking at photographs from agencies active in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s that many were generated or marked as multi-purpose and generic in the same way Comstock describes its own stock pictures of the 1970s.

The Comstock holdings are distinguished by their more pointedly ‘conceptual’, ‘abstract’, or ‘metaphorical’ approach to the subject matter. Scanlon makes much of the fact that he and Grill assigned photographers to shoot for ‘concept’ rather than ‘content’, to think in terms of ‘word pictures’, visual condensations of verbal concepts. Stock catalogues will often group such photographs under categories such as ‘analogies’, ‘business metaphors’, ‘symbols’, or ‘conceptual’.

Stock agencies were not, and still are not respectable in the way that assignment shooting is, and are typically seen as a way of making money from photographic leftovers. But as the photography business became more competitive, stock market shooting became a significant part of it. The rapid expansion of the stock market over the last 20 years is the result of a number of factors. Magazines, which traditionally employed staff photographers, whose work was the property of the publisher, gradually eliminated those positions in favour of freelance photographers who could sell their outtakes. This potential was reinforced by the 1978 copyright law, which states that a photograph is the property of the person who shot it: a client who hires a freelance photographer is paying only for the ‘use’ of the photographer’s property. Another major change was technological. By the early 1980s nearly all agency photographs were colour transparencies, which meant that an original would have to be sent out rather than a print generated from a black and white negative. Most transparencies would be damaged after only five trips to a printer or colour house, limiting the lifetime, circulation potential and profitability of a single image. In 1985 Kodak introduced high-quality duping film (Kodak 50/71) that allowed photographers to make limitless dupes of successful pictures. A typical international agency will now make an average of 125 copies of a single photograph for circulation to sibling agencies in over 15 different countries. Photographer Lester Lefkowitz has sold one photograph over 250 times; his 1989 image of two meshing gears has appeared on posters, on the covers of a journal of accounting and on a law journal and on examples of graphic design all over the world.

Encyclopaedic and lavishly produced catalogues are a phenomenon of the last ten to 15 years. Unlike earlier catalogues, which merely indicated the type and variety of images available, these now provide a record of the entire archive, so clients rarely make research requests but instead ask for the exact picture they require. Many photographers demand that each of their pictures accepted for distribution appears in the catalogue. The incredible volume and obsolescence of such catalogues is changing as they are replaced by photo-CD and on-line services. But while these technologies are appealing from an ecological standpoint, they pose a new range of problems for photographers, who will find it difficult to protect their work as it becomes subject to digital manipulation and disguise.

Non-Specific Stereotypes
As a business, stock photography is based on the notion that a single photograph has a potential for multiple applications. In modern stock photography, the informational richness and depth of the photographic image clashes with the imperative for the generic, the non-specific, the symbolic, the superficial and stereotypical. This striving for clarity and legibility (in both formal and conceptual terms) unites the disparate styles and subjects offered up by stock photo agencies.

The catalogues and archives of the stock industry provide an index of how images communicate in the context of mass media. In the process of building and marketing their collections, stock agencies are establishing a visual dictionary of mass media – a visualisation of emotions and situations such as patriotism, parenthood, leisure, friendship, work, power, confusion, information, love, and aggression.

Picture Literacy
Historians of printing have shown that the formalization of writing through the medium of typography – its gradual elimination of the vagaries and inconsistencies of handwriting – affected the development of both grammar and punctuation. And with this formalization came a proliferation of vocabulary.

The notion that modern culture is characterized by a shift from print-based literacy to picture-based literacy has been discussed since the advent of photography; the field of cultural studies has situated itself at this intersection of words and pictures. The saturation of imagery, and the growth of apparatuses with which to disseminate and analyse it, begs the question of whether a similar formalization is occurring in the realm of images. Stock photography is an exaggerated forum in which to consider this question, but for that same reason is useful as an index of a publicly directed form of speech.

Iconographically, stock photography converts dialects of Modernism into the everyday language of commerce, as in the relentless recycling of Edward Weston-style nature studies or the endless drip of Dr Harold Edgerton’s famous stroboscopic study of a water droplet. Stock photography also updates and makes contemporary images from Michelangelo to Norman Rockwell, using conventions as legible as a no-smoking sign. Stock photography suggests that in industrialised cultures ‘visual literacy’, or better yet ‘picture literacy’, means that there are more and more pictures, but they get more and more alike.

Because of its emphasis on clarity, stock-photo speech is an exaggerated form of representation – a feature that becomes apparent when the subject is cultural difference. To sum up the landscape of contemporary Japan, photographers resort to the most easily read juxtaposition of clichés: a geisha woman buying a Coca-Cola at a vending machine. Despite the tendency towards internationalisation in stock photographs, there are still important cultural differences: while US markets demand multi-cultural imagery, European and Asian markets largely reject integrated scenes.

The repetition of compositions, poses and settings makes contemporary stock photography appear as a monolithic category of generic imagery. Yet like graphic design, it is practiced on a number of levels that are in varying degrees commercial, stylistically ambitious or tailored to the needs of a specific clientele. Within the stock industry there is a commercial mainstream – Comstock, FPG, Tony Stone – and an avant-garde wing, represented by Photonica, established in Tokyo in 1987 and in New York in 1990. The sophisticated colour and abstracted forms of Photonica represent a reaction against the ‘stock photo’ look; the imagery is highly specific rather than generic, and the style foregrounds the vision of individual photographers.

Photonica’s success has led other agencies to mimic its approach: FPG has just introduced an imitative ‘Photo Haiku’ catalogue and Photonica-like requests appear on the ‘Want Lists’ issued by the agencies. Receiving my ‘Photo Haiku’ catalogue, I was reminded of a statement made by Lefkowitz: ‘Photo agencies…react purely to whatever sells.’

Working in the Archives
While much of this photographic production is intended as a practical tool for designers, some have employed stock in a less straightforward manner. An early example is Moholy-Nagy’s book Painting, Photography, Films, which weaves highlights from mostly German mass-media publications and photo agencies into a manifesto about the way modern photography extends vision. Two recent examples are more directly ‘about’ the language of stock photography. The catalogues Cultural Geometry, Artificial Nature, and Post Human (see ‘Reputations’, pages 14-16) by the design and editorial team of Dan Friedman and Jeffery Dietch offer an amused, sometimes critical response to the image banks of mass media. In the case of Cultural Geometry, stock imagery associated with tourism is juxtaposed with artwork rooted in geometry. Through words and pictures, the book deconstructs the notion of ‘pure’ geometry, foregrounding the way this carries cultural associations. In all three books, stock photography, celebrity press shots and mass-market magazines provide the lens through which to survey the media-saturated culture in which the artwork was produced.

Designer Bethany Johns uses stock photography from the 1940s and 1950s for both editorial and budgetary reasons. In pro-active work for the Women’s Action Coalition, stock sources provide inexpensive, powerful, sometimes humorous reinforcement for serious messages. John’s studio stationery features stock photographs that relate to the various functions of business correspondence: a solid handshake graces the letter of introduction, a transmittal sheet features a golf ball about to be set in motion by the swing of a club, invoices show a woman screaming in terror. John’s use of stock sometimes exploits the camp, nostalgic quality of 1940s and 1950s imagery, sometimes stock photography’s visual drama, as in an anti-discrimination statement for Atlantic Records that has a mysterious, blindfolded man with the words ‘we should know better’ superimposed over the rants of a racist monologue.

British designer Mark Farrow has incorporated stock imagery in a less editorially specific manner: ‘The way we use pictures is almost gratuitous. It comes from the logic that record sleeves have pictures, so we provide a picture. Often this has nothing to do with the band, it’s just a great image. It’s almost a form of generic packaging for records. The bands I’m doing much of this work for don’t have a public image and they don’t have much of a budget, so it works for economic reasons as well. If anything started our use of picture libraries, it was financial constraints.

Farrow began using picture-library images in 1990-91 for Deconstruction Records, a major British dance label. In his work for a band called K-klass, he has developed imagery with nautical references because the name refers to a type of submarine. The cover for Let Me Show You uses an image of a huge killer whale breaching, obtained from a picture library that specializes in animals. The whale may be thought of as a kind of submarine, but otherwise has no thematic relationship to the band or the music. Asked about the relationship between his Texas Cowboys cover for The Grid and British designer Peter Saville’s 1993 Regret cover for New Order, Farrow acknowledged the similarity but felt that Saville’s use of such imagery took place in a story-telling mode, whereas his own is more ambiguous and non-narrative.

Saville’s Regret cover underscores its narrative aspects with a typographic treatment that echoes the advertising/display titling of big-budget movie posters. The cover skillfully fuses the languages of Hollywood and Madison Avenue, movies and cigarettes, territory where the melodrama inherent in the title comes into full narrative flower. In Saville’s work for both New Order and clothing designer Yohji Yamamoto, there is a metaphorical use of imagery that parallels standard uses of stock sources rather than the oblique relationships favoured by Farrow. ‘I don’t think of this imagery as kitsch,’ says Farrow. ‘Many of these are beautiful, strong photos, and they are not there for their story or for a laugh.’

The New York studio Bureau designed a 1991 Elektra Records advertising campaign which uses brilliantly hued and hyper-realistic stock photographs of a vacuum cleaner, a glistening Thanksgiving turkey and a big, fleshy baby. Each advertisement in the series promotes a different band, but as in Farrow’s work, there is no specific link between the artists and the imagery. What unites the series is the motif of a jagged cartouche that surrounds copy typeset in a large, industrial sans serif. In an industry characterised by clever copy lines and mediocre band photographs, these advertisements display a pleasing flippancy towards the conventional goals of advertising.

Designers engage stock imagery in ways which could be described variously as sincere, naïve, pragmatic, ironic, humorous, political or appropriationist. In some designers’ work, these images become discursive, reflective of their own status as a form of ‘popular reality’ to refer to the forum of imagery that creates our concepts of the public. Historical and comparative study of stock photography could yield insights into the often hypothesized domination of the image over the word, and the transformation of our roles from ‘citizens’ into ‘consumers’.

Thanks to Comstock, Tony Stone and FPG.

Abbott Miller, designer, Pentagram, New York

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

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.