Let us start by acknowledging three universal facts. First: stock photography sites are packed, in surprisingly equal measures, with both great and terrible images. Second: something about the truly terrible images—as opposed to the merely uninspired ones—can be thunderously beautiful. Third: The two previous statements form an interesting tension worthy of examination. Why are bad images so very intriguing? Here’s why: Stock photography is hedged on all sides, both by unspoken “rules” and the inchoate needs of image-searchers. Bad examples of those rules reveal the buried conventions of the form.
Consider this curious pearl coughed up recently when searching a royalty-free images site for the term “woman laptop.” (Here I must credit Adam Marks, Mister Perspicacious, who found this image and shared gleefully with me.) It’s caption-copy gold!
What elements did this image-maker think were important to include to satisfy his eventual image-seeker? Obviously, a sleek white laptop (off-brand Mac). Also obviously, an attractive woman in a business suit. Plenty of pent-up demand for those elements. But there’s SO MUCH else packed into this image that’s impossible to explain away. Is she happily shopping or identity-thieving? Is that lacy tank top just questionable office wear (as, indeed, a pure-white suit already is) or is her actual bustier on full display? Is she computing under klieg lights on a 405 overpass? (The jaunty palm trees, forlorn office towers, and clearly avocational sex-worker aesthetic: this all screams pure suburban L.A.) Or is she green-screening her sunset fantasies into a drab worker-bee setting? Similar images of her from the same rights-free site suggest a miniature story behind this photo shoot. In a strangely endearing way, she seems fully “in” on the joke, which makes the inherent weirdness of the initial shot somehow friendlier. Taken as a series, I love these.
“What do pictures want?” asks visual culture scholar W.J.T. Mitchell in a 2005 book of the same name, which I’ve been reading recently. The question is more than just a cute thought experiment. Mitchell is wondering aloud why we humans tend to regard images animistically, as if they have sentient life. No matter how dispassionately we try to evaluate a graphic design, or parse a cerebral ad, or confront a challenging painting, we can never be fully rational in relating to images. If you doubt the mystical status of images, Mitchell writes, imagine taking a photo of your mother and gouging the eyes out of it. Unsettling, right?
If we run with this outlandish premise and think of images as half-alive, it follows logically that they’d have desires, feelings, fears. What images “want” also suggests a lack or incompleteness, something the image doesn’t contain itself but requires from viewers to fulfill its mission. That statement is perfectly fitting for stock photography, where every image is destined to illuminate—if wanly—a corporate PowerPoint presentation, a nicotine patch ad, a blog post on customer retention. The photo wants its textual companion, the words that make sense of its existence, that explain it more fully. Royalty-free stock photos—like the ones pictured above—may not want your payment for using them. But what they do want is wide distribution, image attribution (often but not always), and to stand out amid a crowded sea of look-alikes. With this post, I’m doing my little part to help these images achieve all those things.
I turn to stock photography, both paid and royalty-free, constantly for my corporate clients when they need something to illustrate blog posts about business or financial topics. This frequent need has taught me to approach image-searching with concrete visual metaphors firmly in mind. I need to take the mental leap necessary to illustrate a slippery business abstraction. For “customer retention,” look for plugged-up leaky buckets. For “cybersecurity,” search for strong padlocks. For numbered list posts, searching for the actual numeral is a good failsafe, revealing a gritty array of wall murals, door numbers, license plates, numbers-in-the-world.
Fail to search with a concrete metaphor in mind, and you’ll be stuck with one of several “business concept” stock-photo memes, in which an abstract principle is just spelled out in a visual setting. I can count five such variations on this theme: word-cloud, Scrabble tiles, highway sign, chalkboard and whiteboard-scribble. Search for the phrase “social media” in any stock photography site, and I guarantee you’ll find all five variations in ample supply.
(I particularly like—as in, hate-like—the whiteboard example below. Note the disembodied female handwriting in mirror-reverse, shadowed by the looming businessman who—even blurred—conveys uncertainty about what the hell he’s doing in this picture. His red tie seems to prop up his head, instead of the other way around. Talk about an empty suit.)
Stock photography has achieved an interesting cultural status nowadays. On the one hand, it’s famous and ubiquitous. These “anonymous” images now catapult real people into minor superstardom, like “Hide Your Pain” Harold. Cultural critics now actively parse the situations stock photos tend to curate—like women happily eating salad or business people in nature. (KnowYourMeme summarizes the history of awkward stock photos brilliantly here. And fans of stock photography at its most mannerist should race their browsers over to badstockphoto.tumblr.com and weird-stock.tumblr.com.) The sheer quantity of a particular scene—for instance, people looking shocked at a computer—reveals how much we collectively are consumed with a certain subject. Whether it takes the specific form of identity theft, or protecting your kids from online porn, or annoying pop-up ads, technology both encroaches and alienates us. Ergo, of course, we need lots of photos of people yelling at a computer.
A new-guard meme of stock photography: the aerial montage of tech tools.
Make no mistake: I’m actually a diehard stock photo fan. Having relied on all the stock photo biggies for corporate work, I’m regularly astounded at how excellent they are. The depth of choices for popular concepts, the density of options for less-popular concepts, and the range of possible styles are all impressive. Even lighting, photo angles, and other effects have gotten more subtle and more nuanced, reflecting the increasing visual acuity of our times. Instagram filters and viewpoints are infiltrating photo-libraries everywhere: consider the aerial montage of tech-tools, a popular meme, shown above. Bearded hipsters in board rooms, steaming lattes by laptops, co-working teams—you can easily find them all now.
Stock photography is its own universe: commodious, surprising, increasingly various. The more we understand its growing uses and get familiar with it as a tool, the stranger and more unknowable it seems to become. Perhaps the most interesting thing about stock photography now is how many more people actually use it—or misuse it, depending on their relative design skills. And here’s where stock photo sites—often maligned for their images of executives incongruously chugging around racetracks, or stacks of coins on weathered desks, or toothily happy, multi-racial teams—are just giving clients the images they’re searching for. Just as video didn’t kill the radio star, stock photography seems set only to prove a designer’s true value. Because to make an extraordinary image, one whose wants align cannily with our own as viewers, selecting the “right” photo is only step one.