My Generic Side

What I learned from be­ing a stock-pho­tog­ra­phy model

The Walrus - - MISCELLANY - BY Jonathan Kay

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

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