My Generic Side
What I learned from being a stock-photography model
My educati on in stock photography came as an undeserved reward for obnoxious behaviour on social media. “Oh, look, another excuse to use one of those stock images of a couple in bed grumpy at each other,” I absent-mindedly tweeted last year after coming across a New York Daily News article entitled “Fights with your spouse could make you fat.” A forgettable moment of snark, but one that came to the attention of Danny Groner, outreach manager at Shutterstock, a New York–based stock-photo powerhouse with a 70-million-shot database.
He replied, “@jonkay If you’re ever interested in doing a story about the creation of images like these, please let me know.” I know a good story when one falls into my lap, so I asked if he wanted to shoot my wife, Jen, and me for a stock photo. Jen nixed a grumpy bedroom shot but did agree to pose for a business-themed shoot at the Walrus office.
Two weeks later, we met with Stacey Newman, a freelance-photography veteran who’s been working for Shutterstock since 2010. While Jen and I filled out the paperwork, Newman inspected the office for promising locations, eventually producing a rough storyboard that would allow us to move quickly from pose to pose once the shooting began.
I’d always assumed that stock photos were edited aggressively. But Newman’s final edits were minor. In a photo of Jen and me talking across a desk, for instance, she deleted the computer cables that were visible in the right side of the frame. Where the word Walrus was visible in a poster, Newman intentionally garbled the text. “One of the most important elements of the Shutterstock quality-control process is to ensure there are no logos or other brand identifiers,” she told me. You can’t use anyone wearing the iconic Burberry pattern, for instance. Even a tiny patch of it in the background renders an image completely unusable.
Professionally shot and curated stock photos invariably exhibit a calculated soullessness. The subjects project human emotions — happy, sad, angry — but in a simple, one-dimensional way. Real human interest would distract the audience from the intended product or idea. Newman’s photos are technically impressive. But there’s also something manicured about them — with our broad smiles and upbeat body language, Jen and I are displaying an idealized sort of white-collar interaction that has been the object of popular satire since the rise of Dilbert and The Office. How many people in real offices sit across from one another at uncluttered desks, smiling all day? And more broadly: Is the project of organizing human experience into databases of generic happy faces and sad faces still relevant in 2016?
I put the question to Jim Pickerell, the Maryland-based publisher of Selling Stock, the industry’s leading source for trade news. “You have to remember, the biggest market for stock photography is advertising, not editorial,” he told me over the phone. “And for the last three or four decades, the most popular themes that customers want have been the same: family life, couples, business situations, travel locations, food, and nature,” he says. “When you get down to it, if people have something to sell, they want a nice, pretty, clean picture — with no distracting elements. That hasn’t changed.”
What has changed are the underlying economics. Pickerell began his career with a bang half a century ago as a freelancer in Saigon. On November 1, 1963, he was the only stringer with colour film in his camera when South Vietnamese president Ngô Đình Diêm was deposed by military insurgents. Pickerell’s˙ iconic image from the presidential grounds made the cover of Life magazine. “Since I was shooting on spec, not for any particular