Stock photography is dead, long live stock photography (Act 3 of 3)

This is the last of three posts exploring my perspective on the business of stock photography. Like so many blog posts, this started as a simple question from a friend, which I answered in part one. It morphed into something bigger because of what was happening in the larger world of stock photography. As I alluded to in the second in this series, the news is not good. In this entry, I explore how that same bad news is hurting me personally and harming our larger cultural collectively.

On the personal level, let me give some background and then tell you where I am today with my stock photography. I am not writing this with the expectation of any sympathy, but rather to educate those interested in stock photography.

In previous posts, I detailed the different strategies for marketing/pricing stock photography. When I started, RM (Rights Managed) was the only choice. Then along came RF (Royalty Free.) I stayed away from RF because I believed back then that the RF system would make me some money in the short-term but cannibalize my own long-term profits. I probably would have held fast to that position until something happened a couple years ago. The big agency, Getty was clearing out their archives of work that was not selling and was about to send me back some old slides. I knew there was NO chance I would ever scan those slides and resubmit them to another agency, so they were going to end up filed away, not producing any revenue. Getty offered to send the digital files they had already made of those same images to their RF division. As an experiment, I took them up on their offer and I have to say those images have been generating decent income for me. So my first experiment with RF went better than I expected and I am now more open to the idea that RF might actually have some logic to it.

With that in mind, I recently decided to do a somewhat similar experiment with micro-stock. I submitted, in sets of ten images at a time, a total of forty images to the micro-stock division of Veer. Veer is a newer highly visible and successful stock agency, so I thought they would be a great place to start.

The thing is that Veer rejected all forty of my images. Four examples of work they rejected are spread throughout this post.

On one level it is no big deal. I have never felt hurt or offended when a given agency has rejected my work. Stock photography is a remarkable pure form of capitalism in that as an individual, I make the images, which the agents then try to license and we both make money. So I know their editing is done from the perspective of what will sell, not what I like or what they think is neat, but only what will make both of us money. As a rule, I trust their editing judgment when they are editing for stock. They miss lots of great stiff that I hope will work in the fine-art realm, but that is another issue.

I do not participate in (or even believe in) systems like Getty’s “Photographer’s Choice.” First, because most photographers, including myself, have no idea what really works in terms of which of our images will meet the end-user’s needs. So we should not be the ones deciding what goes up on the various sites for clients to see/license. Secondly, the Getty “Photographer’s Choice” program strikes me as a way for the agency to make easy money off the hopes (delusions) that many photographer’s have about how wonderful their images actually are.

Based on my experience, there is one other thing to keep in mind about stock photography. From the photographer’s end there are, in essence, two strategies to making images and placing them with agencies.

The first, harder strategy is the one is I pursue. I do not take direction that well and do not like to follow the latest trends (note my choice in clothes for example.) So, I go wherever I can and make the images I want, then I try to find agencies that will use them. I find this more personally rewarding, but the next strategy is more financially rewarding.

The second and wiser one is to actually keep up on cultural trends while seeking out guidance from the agencies and make images that fit their needs. Most agencies have want-lists, which are usually drawn from their own extensive market research (and from what kind of images clients regularly call looking for but can not find.) So, in that strategy, the photographer is filling an existing need, and thus more likely to make money.

The problem is that if you look through the imagery on agency sites like that of Veer, you will see an ever-narrowing style of photography. Most imagery of what is called real life is in fact hyper-real. The people involved are younger, hipper and better looking than ever. The production values, such as the lighting, the make-up and clothes styling, etc. are better than ever.

Real life is slowly being displaced by the latest over-produced vision of what life should be. Recently advertising imagery has been said to focus on “getting real.” If you look at that work closely it is using the idea of the everyday as a background to play out the latest version of the hyper-reality. That same style of photography and editing is washing over the stock photography business as well.

Stock is a business and I treat it like a business. I keep my ego out of it. I work with multiple agencies because my experience is that no one agency can cover all the markets where I might license images. I keep up to date on trends and technologies.

But stock is also increasingly at the heart of our collective visual culture and this is where my experience moves from something that is a problem for me to something that is an issue for all of us. As the number of images produced on assignments falls, the media increasingly relies on stock photographs. As the style of stock photography grows ever narrower, so does our collective visual culture. I fear the day when all the larger stock imagery purveyors are pushing the same hyper-real imagery in their advertising images and in their editorial images.

Our shared visual portrayal of life will become ever more homogenized and sanitized, furthering the divide between the haves and have-nots. When we no longer see or appreciate how others really live, we will be doing serious long-term harm to our democracy as well as our visual culture.

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