All aspects of creative expression go through phases as styles and public preferences change. As the ability to gain new information accelerates with the Internet, we’re seeing these preferences change more rapidly, whether it’s in women’s fashions, men’s hairstyles, or stock photography. Following the fads may sometimes seem like a professional necessity — but if you’re not careful, it can also drain your passion.
Today, the Internet is drowning in “wishful imagery.” In the world according to Getty, Jupiter, iStock and Corbis, this is what life is: a generic lovely blonde with green sunglasses; a suit throwing documents in the breeze; day-glow chartreuse tennis balls; a close-up of a wind-swept fashion model; and of course, the cell-phone guy. Ho-hum, yawn.
Is this the kind of subject matter that attracts an emerging photographer to the field? In the majority of instances, people decide on a photographic career because of their love of capturing something meaningful or poetic with their camera. They win a prize, they take a photography course, and then they search for ways to make money with their talent, to provide for themselves or their family.
For those who embark on a career supplying commercial stock images, copying the style and content of the major stock houses is common. Next to snapshots, generic stock images are the easiest pictures to take. Most commercial stock shooters have found that the effortless way to produce acceptable stock images is to capitalize on the ideas of the leading stock houses that have done the market research and know the trends.
This isn’t only true of stock photography. It’s also been the formula for the fashion industry, the music industry, and most other industries where taste and trends guide production. The recipe in the stock photo industry is to keep the successful concept the same — and add favored locations, clothing, hairstyles, preferred tones and tints.
Am I being too cynical? I’m asking, “Is this how you want to spend your creative life?” It seems to me that this kind of photographic activity takes not much more talent and creativity than photographing fireworks, or hot air balloons, or sunsets and rainbows.
If someone can easily copy your idea, then it’s not much of an idea, is it? Don’t be the stock photographer who wakes up one day and asks, “What have I been doing all these years?”
Sure, some of the major stock agencies call attention to real-life editorial images, or even historical images. Getty Images, for example, features the Time-Life collection; Corbis features the Bettmann Archives. But these are not contemporary images.
Contemporary “editorial photographs” are usually interpreted as disaster pictures or photos that are newsworthy. The meaningful, poetic images capturing everyday life are left to be produced by individual photographers who choose to interpret the world around them, void of agency pressures.
Would Getty Images accept work from Henri Cartier-Bresson in today’s stock photography climate? Probably not. “Too narrow, too focused in subject matter,” an art director would say. “Incapable of selling product.”
If you follow the big money trail in stock photography, you’ll land at the major agencies and begin producing a commodity for them. Even if you do this to put food on the table, don’t let it become who you are.