The contracting of our collective visual culture

I make most of my living as a stock photographer. Stock photography is rapidly changing. Those changes have been impacting me (and my peers) for quite a while. So far you are thinking to yourself, none of this is big news. The news is that recently, the pace of that change hit a tipping point for me (and I am guessing for the larger world of stock photography.) If you care about photography in general (and stock photography in particular,) then what has been happening lately is especially bad news.

If you go to http://www.davidhwells.com/stock/projects.html you can see the nine businesses that license my existing images. If you click through on each icon, you should be taken to the respective agency’s site to see a portfolio of my images that is represented/licensed by that organization. If you happen to go through to each of the nine, you will see I have a great deal of imagery spread out among the different agencies. I spread the work out because I am not a person who, as they say, puts all my eggs in one basket and because different agencies work in different image markets. If you click on The Image Works, at http://theimageworks.com/ for example, you will see an organization that primarily targets the textbook market.

Over the last couple years, four of the nine agencies listed on that page have largely stopped taking my work, canned me, (or whatever you want to call it.) What triggered this particular blog entry was the fact that I was recently demoted by the agency Getty. This follows in the wake of being largely shut out by the agency Alamy. Two other agencies, Images.com and Corbis, among the nine on that web page, also stopped taking new work from me recently.

I am not blogging about this looking for sympathy. I know that stock photography is a business and in the business judgment of those four organizations, my work does not fit. I accept that. Similarly, I am also not lambasting the people who made those same decisions. They were simply doing their jobs and responding to the market that they work within. I accept that.

I do want to condemn the growing industry-wide practice of shutting out photographers whose work does not match the ever-narrowing style of stock photography. If you look at a lot of photography, you already know what that style looks like. Every one you see in most of the images I am thinking of are young and good-looking. (Thankfully they are usually quite ethnically diverse, which is one sign of real progress.) The colors, sharpness, lighting and general production values of those same images are inching ever closer to irrational perfection. Even images that are supposed to show how we are “getting back to what’s real” exhibit a similar disconnect from reality. This new style of stock photography is a perfect metaphor for the state of the business of stock photography. Everything looks perfect but nothing is quite real.

Every stock photographer who has been newly shut-out by their agency has a slightly different story. The two most recent demotions I experienced are the most telling in terms of understanding where things are going in the world of photography. In the case of Getty, they recently told me my work did not fit their new direction, did not meet new customer’s needs, etc. I can see all that. They said I was still able to submit work via their Photographer’s Choice program. That is where the photographer decides which images the agency should put in their archive and be promoted on Getty’s web-site. The photographer also pays $50 per image to do that, so it really is little more than the worst form of pay-to-play.

I have no interest in submitting to their Photographer’s Choice program for two reasons. If the agency does not decide which images they put on their site and in their promotions, you can be sure they will not be pushing those images as compared to the images they did select and do have an investment in. Also, and I have blogged about this before, editors who would be looking at the work for the agencies play an important, if underappreciated role in the process of assembling our collective visual culture. The best editors I ever worked with, consciously or otherwise, put themselves right in the middle of a triangle with the photographer, the client/market and our collective visual culture at the three points. Great editors kept all three constituencies in mind as they honed in on the best images. The idea of a pay-to-play system, like Photographer’s Choice, negates the very important contribution of an editor.

Speaking of editors, the U.K. based agency Alamy does not even have editors. They have turned their quality control system over to computers. Scanning the ones and zeroes that make up digital files, their system has recently been uniformly rejecting images of mine with unusual plays of light and shadow. The same system also stopped accepting work where part of my images was out of focus, whether the result of shallow depth of field or the use of a Lens Baby.

I should say that Alamy have not formally demoted me, but rather they are continually rejecting my work. I am not alone in this, in that I reda agreat deal about how they routinely reject the work of many other photographers whose work does not fit their mechanized editing criteria. Keep in mind that I have 4,252 images in their collection, dating back to August of 2004 when I uploaded my first images. I mention that to suggest that my imagery was at one point, accepted quite regularly.

All of this is important because numerous commentators wiser than I am have suggested that stock photographs reflects a vision of our selves, and our society. My concern is if that is so, then we are in big trouble. Double trouble if you accept the widely held belief that today’s stock photography is tomorrow’s collective assembly of our visual memory.

The thing to understand is that this was not always how the stock photography world worked. For years, a wide range of agencies disseminated a rainbow of imagery portraying all aspects of life on the planet. Yes, a few images were the biggest sellers, such as the omnipresent two guys shaking hands, that iconic business image. But a diversity of other options and styles of photography could be found somewhere in the stock photography universe. Today, as the number of agencies is shrinking, through consolidation or closure, that diversity is narrowing.

If you told me that in the future I could only choose from among four types pencils, I would be annoyed but I am not sure I would worry for our collective culture. I do worry that we are rapidly heading towards a single aesthetic for our media imagery, one that is uniformly homogeneous and drawn from only a few sources. If you believe that, then you should worry for our collective visual culture.

And yes, I have been a participant in this process. While part of me has fought the good fight by working with agencies encouraging a diversity of imaging styles, I have also hedged my bets. I have work with the biggest agencies, those 800 lb gorillas as well as with the smaller agencies too. As I noted earlier, I am not a person who puts all my eggs in one basket.

Do I worry that by “naming names,” I am endangering my business with the agencies I have critiqued? I do not think so. The agencies that do not want my work have already delivered their verdict on me. Do I worry that those same agencies might remove my work from their archives/sites? I hope not. I also do not think they will do that because they are in business. They know that enough of my work makes them enough money, year in and year out, that removing my work would only harm their bottom line.

I am thankful that four of the nine agencies on that web-site page listing my stock agents ( http://www.davidhwells.com/stock/projects.html ) are still taking work from me. Those agents are Aurora, Asia Photo Connection, The Image Works and TIPS. Each of those four is fighting an uphill battle in the contemporary stock photography marketplace, but they are still in the fight and in the business. If you go through their larger collections, you will see that on the whole, their collections have a more open and inclusive archive of work that better reflects our collective reality.

Keep in mind that pretty much every person I have dealt with in the process of the agencies implementing these changes has been almost uniformly gracious to me. They site changing business trends, declining revenues and newly developing markets. They are doing their jobs, as they should be. I have no quarrel with them. My quarrel is with the larger forces at work here.

So, should you care about the changing business practices in the world of stock photography? Should you worry that those forces are reshaping the imaging landscape in ways that exclude me, and my work? Not at all! I wouldn’t expect you to.

Should you care how those same forces are reshaping how we see, make, distribute, share and appreciate photography? I certainly think you should be paying attention, as the 800-pound gorillas of the stock photography world decimate the business. If they have their way, they will soon homogenize away all the quirky, individualistic, stylized, eccentric, weird and unique things that collectively make up the world of photography that we collectively love so much.

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