2001 MMLA
Globalization and the Image

Matthias Bruhn

The Commercial Image and the Process of Globalization


Please do not copy, quote or circulate without author's permission.

I would like to draw your attention to a certain "genre" of contemporary commercial photography that is usually called Stock Photography. The term indicates a photographic material to be used for a variety of purposes and customers in mass-media, in advertising, or package design, and it can be kept available "in stock" for a longer period of time. Most of them show everyday-life situations or still-life, or they belong to general categories such as animals, landscape, or food photography. While press agencies provide images of the current political personnel, of recent sports events, or of celebrities like movie and pop stars, stock agencies usually focus on a standardized repertoire of anonymous, timeless, and average objects, offering illustrations of a technically high quality, but for a comparably modest price, for subjects such as "beauty", "nature", "travelling" etc.

Customers can visit the office, ask for a selection of pictures suitable for a certain topic, or use sales catalogues on paper or CD-ROM with extracts of the collection and then make their orders. These catalogues are mailed for free to editors and advertisers, giving samples from the stocks in order to allow their customers to have a first glance at what the collection looks like. The agencies choose, arrange, and promote their material in a fashion that offers their customers a fast and convenient access to their archives and electronic databases. For the same reason, the underlying taxonomy or keyword system of the archives has to be clear, simple, and easy to understand for both the customer and the editor.

What you see on the right is a page from a sales catalogue published in 1996 by one of the market leaders, a Texas-based company, showing you a selection of pictures from the categories Business / Women / Stress. They may stand for maybe 5 percent of the whole collection - depending on the design of the catalogue, the subject, etc. The archive of the major companies is usually arranged by general keywords like people, industry, nature, agriculture, business, and then subdivided in a flat hierarchy (business is divided into business men and business women, and these categories again into classes of 1 businesswoman, 2 businesswomen, and then divided into 1 businesswoman: phone, 1 businesswoman: stress, and so on).

Who defines those keywords? Other than in an historical archive, where objects usually have to be classified according to a more complex thesaurus or a static taxonomical system, the main issue of the keywords applied here is not to guarantee a long-term preservation of objective information resistant to historical changes in interpretation, but to respond to these changes of meaning, style, or fashion. On the other hand, Stock Photography reduces their vocabulary in order to survive more than one or two months and to be usable by different customers. Sometimes it is clothing, sometimes the technical equipment of the persona (like the cell phone) that ages within a month, so stock photographers will avoid being too fashionable. But then again, the material needs to have an adequate style in order to be recognized as a representative of contemporary life. This is the crucial moment, when photographic skills as well as compromise become inevitable and photographers reduce potential risks to the minimum.

Simply by offering catalogues and re-arranging their collections the providers do make active suggestions to their customers where to look at first. Usually the employees of the agency, as well as some catalogues, even go further: They suggest how to illustrate abstract notions and situations such as 'environmental issues' or 'family problems' with images coming from their collection. I give you an extract of the index pages, here called "concept index", from a US-american catalogue that is available - and looks identical - world-wide. What you see is a "pictorial" table of contents that uses thumbnails as indicators for images which would be useful to visualize notions such as "guidance", "purity", "maturity" etc. In other words, they make a creative pre-selection for their customers who might accept the idea, but replace the given example by a similar one, made for instance by a different artist or having a different photographic style.

These two central aspects, the existence of catalogues and the prediction of the customers' choice, are in themselves nothing new. As we know from mass media studies, picture providers have used similar ways to promote their material ever since the early times of mass picture reproduction. But what made Stock photography a successful service and distribution concept in the early 80s was the idea of no longer selling and buying photographs, but only renting them as a recyclable material for a limited time, thereby permitting that a picture can be used in a magazine article in Germany and in a food advertisement in Brazil at the same time. To avoid collisions and obvious repetitions they need not only a standardized vocabulary (Siegfried Giedion would have to be mentioned here), but also a global network of offices exchanging user information and material.

Mostly because economic competition in advertising and publishing has increased in the last decades, stock photography has become tremendously successful. When you have to find an image for your editorial board within minutes and at a good price while your colleagues do not care for how you solve the problem or your name is mentioned nowhere but in the imprint, these catalogues suddenly become the picture editor's best friend, their everyday companion and the memorial of the unknown business executive. This is, where market ideology strikes back. In order to profit from this situation, Stock Photography was introduced as a service concept - not as a mere storage system! - by a group of American agencies, named Stock Pictures, Image Bank, Tony Stone etc. At the same time, a considerable number of books were published by professional photographers bearing titles such as Stock Photography: How to shoot it - how to sell it, explaing their colleagues how to "enter the 125-Million-Dollar-Stock Photography Market". Although aimed at the professional audience these books already revealed some basic rules of Stock Photography that are now a rewarding object of scholarly studies, too, in terms of photographic theory, of material culture, visual anthropology, or an archeology of the everyday, and they also provide a fertile model for how to renegotiate the methodology of art history (the point of view from which I am currently preparing a more comprehensive book on this issue. Suggestions welcome)

But since the decision which pattern can be successfully applied to what kind of message is based on both the agents' experiences and the customers' response, and being objects of a comprehensive commercial exchange, Stock Photographs are not only and no longer a mere photographical documentation. Because the public life they stand for is negociated by photographers, designers, editors, and readers, preferring those photos that can easily be read because they're omnipresent and do not offend the reader, this shortcut effect excludes and includes social groups by refusing or admitting their incorporation into the sphere of visual communication (the effect of a practice that can be compared to the institutional power of photography as a means of seemingly pure documentation and investigation, as described by Allan Sekula or Abigail Solomon-Godeau.) They offer easy-to-read visualizations in a world of increasingly complex social ideas and thereby furnish editors and readers with an emblemacy of modern life of its own, no matter how contradictory and ideologically inconsistent the results may be.

This is important in that these images, made for advertising use, and thus exporting the aesthetics of advertising internationally, not only transgress national borders, but also the borders of genres, as they appear in all kinds of publications, produced by various non-commercial or non-governmental groups and organizations. You'll also find them in the editorial parts of newsmagazines, in brochures of church communities, trade unions, in health magazines etc, i.e. whenever there's a visual gap to fill for an affordable price (cf. this as an addition to the discussion of "false demand")

What you see on the left, is an example of a German Magazine for environmental issues and natural products, called Ökotest (Eco-test), that tried to get rid of its old fashioned, freaky, alternative look and decided to change its design by receiving more than 60 percent of all its images from Stock agencies, since they do stand for the language commonly agreed on as "normal", "everyday", with a symbolic value of being clean, healthy, and positive. This is a strategy of normalization through the choice of material, although there is no difference to the same material applied in the same way to an everyday-life soap-magazine such as Neue Revue, here an example on the right.

Obtrousive Consumption and Inevitable Globalization

For the same reason, many images do to not fulfill the requirements of the archive. As an example here: the US-flag in the barnyard clearly localizes the photo as an american farm that can no longer be used for a German or French magazine on agriculture, but has to be used in a topographical context such as travel guides - or must be produced in a way that allows digital post-production such as manipulating or deleting the details. Digital image processing has diminished the financial risks in the recent years and will change the contents of archives.

But in spite of digital technologies, the composition of many of these photographs is a technical procedure with hugh staffs and efforts comparable to the production of a short movie, and some of these photographs are accompanied by identical video clips shot at the same time. The production-costs of those pictures as well as the demand for those images remain comparably high, so the setting-up of a global distribution system was to make the material available in as many countries as possible and thus to balance the financial risks. Today we count some 20 major companies, some of which have up to 70 branches world wide disposing of 2 or 3 million slides per office. In most cases, these slides aren't but copies of a pool of pictures in the company's headquarter plus local additions. Their global success is not only a proof for the cleverness of a new service concept - it also confirms an economic and cultural dominance, as most of the stock photography companies come from the U.S., U.K., France, Germany etc, with photographers also from Italy, Australia, Japan etc.

When a French advertising company asks the archivist for an image of a family to show satisfied clients of a Paris bank they will definetely not accept the portrait of a white family with a black father or a chines mother; this implicit racialist discrimination is part of a visual logic that justifies itself by the symbolic value that the portrait will have in the eyes of the future customer seeing the advertisment in a newspaper or on a poster: because there the black father would "still" have a different symbolic meaning, that is: the black man in a white family, that is: a multi-ethnic topic which is something different, in terms of visual communication, than, let's say, "our customers are satisfied with our service". Consequently this is how the caption will read: Multi-ethnic family. After all, the agency staff, the creative director, the bank and the target group have made their silent agreement that excludes different social groups by refusing their introduction into a common visual vocabulary - without anyone having any bad conscience. Of course, the contents of the collection, as mentioned and seen before, will slowly adapt themselves to social changes, changes in style etc. But simply because the catalogue offers customers in different countries a pre-selected choice that includes a core idea and a variety of ethnic or social versions of it, it enables and encourages those different customer groups to create their own set of icons out of it, build up their own stock reality, and in the consequence, make them sustain their own belief that the collection in general is a true representative of everyone's everyday life.