Moving Pictures

Say you work at Design
Army, in Washington, D.C., and you need a photo. If you asked your
co-workers for help, they’d probably trill, “Just Getty
it.” “Same as when some people say, ‘Just Google
it,’” explains Pum Lefebure, the design firm’s
co-owner. “We use the photos, but we also browse Getty for
inspiration.” When Design Army needed photos of bamboo shoots for
a Ringling Bros. installation, Getty had more high-quality images than
anywhere else. If the firm is hunting for images that inspire the tone
for a piece of branding, Getty has the richest cache of pictures, all a
single keyword away on one of the industry’s most comprehensive,
user-friendly websites. When it comes to visuals, Getty is Wal-Mart and
the New York Public Library rolled into one.

Lefebure’s remark
sums up the trend among many design firms like hers. Over the past few
years, Getty has gobbled up so many smaller stock houses that it now
owns 40 percent of the market, large enough to have become the subject
of the kind of regulatory, pre-merger antitrust investigations usually
associated with banks and airlines. In recent months, the U.S.
Department of Justice finished its review of Getty’s proposed
buyout of MediaVast, which owns the party-picture agency WireImage.
Stock has become big business in a remarkably short time. But that
status seems precarious—and Getty and its photographers are
straining to adapt.

Getty was founded in 1993 by two investment
bankers: Jonathan Klein and Mark Getty, an heir to the Getty oil
fortune. At that time, the stock photo market overflowed with small
agencies—a classic opportunity for an industry “roll
up,” in business school parlance. Getty Images was formed to buy
up those mom-and-pop companies and digitize all their collections.

It’s a story that has unfolded again and again in other fields:
Some emerging player, on the wings of a new technology or business
practice, becomes dominant by scooping up small enterprises. Size pays:
Photographers who might once have gained better fees in a more
competitive marketplace now find themselves with limited leverage
against a monolithic negotiating partner.

It’s no wonder that
photographers and stock buyers gripe that Getty grabs profits where it
can, leaving everyone else a skinny slice. A number of art directors and
stock buyers contacted for this article—many of whom asked to
remain anonymous—pointed out that Getty has much more rigid
pricing than its predecessors. Says a former Getty agent who now works
at a smaller photo agency, “[Getty is] very strict with licenses.
I left because my relationships with clients became just processing
orders.” Carol*, an art buyer for an established New York firm,
bears witness to that shift: “Agents used to take into account the
little details about how you were using an image, but not Getty.”
 
*Some names have changed.

Photographers have felt Getty’s influence in the way they work
and in how much money they take home. “There are a lot of
strong-arm tactics involved in getting lower fees from
photographers,” says Lucy, a photo producer who works alongside
her husband, a veteran stock photographer. Partly as a result of
Getty’s increased bargaining power, the money photographers make
from rights-managed photographs—which give a buyer exclusive image
rights—has dwindled. “The industry standard cut for
photographers used to be 50 percent,” Lucy adds. “It’s
now 20 to 40 percent. People sign with market leaders like Getty to make
it up in volume.” For rights-managed images, the average
commission at Getty is now closer to 33 percent, according to the
company’s latest annual report.

Not surprisingly, Getty resists
being characterized as an industry heavy that slashes fees at will.
“There is a misconception that Getty Images controls the stock
industry,” says Andrew Saunders, Getty’s vice president of
imagery. “We are the market leader, but there are far bigger
forces at play. With digital photography, it’s now possible for
many more photographers to get involved in selling stock images, making
the industry far more competitive.”

Stock was once a reliable
sideline for many photographers subsidizing their commissioned work, but
Getty’s cutthroat marketplace doesn’t favor part-timers.
“Getty has been getting much more selective, focusing on the most
productive relationships that provide the greatest return,” says
Betsy Reid, executive director of Stock Artists Alliance, a nonprofit
group that represents stock photographers. And yet even for committed
shooters, the company’s mammoth database makes for daunting
competition. “There are so many pictures that your work becomes a
needle in a haystack,” says one longtime photographer for
Getty’s 2005 acquisition, Photonica. Jim Pickerell, publisher of
the trade magazine Selling Stock, adds, “The collections
will likely grow larger and larger, so the odds of any images being
licensed have become less and less.”

That process is
self-perpetuating: Fresh photos that appear in the first pages of search
results on Getty’s site become all-important, and photographers
must shoot new images to stay visible. Though many buyers and
photographers (even among those not enamored of the company) note that
Getty’s keyword system is useful and fast—the site is
searchable both by content and by conceptual themes tagged by
editors—the flood of images has meant that the useful life of
stock images has declined drastically. Pickerell gives the example of a
stock photographer he knows who made more than $200,000 in 2005 through
Getty. In 2006, says Pickerell, “He added 400 new pictures, at
great cost, and almost doubled his collection. But his income stayed the
same.”

As it becomes harder for photographers to make a living,
the industry’s vitality may be sapped. “We see seasoned
photographers leaving stock because of reduced opportunity, but also
because of reduced enthusiasm. They’re unlikely to be replaced by
a new generation of pros, nor will their level of imagery be replicated
by amateurs,” says Reid. “Those photographers who stay had
better be delivering high-value imagery.” David Walker, who has
covered Getty extensively for Photo District News, concurs:
“Getty’s about volume and efficiency. That naturally drives
their collection toward images that are going to sell the
best.”

It’s debatable whether this state of affairs
necessarily leads to blandness in photos’ style and subject
matter, though it’s a belief a few hold dear. “There was a
time in the ’80s and ’90s when there were lots of young, new
stock agencies interested in unconventional stock,” notes Stephen
Frailey, chair of the photography department at New York’s School
of Visual Arts. “Some people think those have been consolidated
and diluted.” Among those critics is Joe Marianek, a New
York-based graphic designer whose former job at a large design firm
often entailed visits to the Getty website. “With Getty I’d
tend to find a certain tone of voice,” he says.
“There’s a Pleasantville aspect. If you look for a
young group, it’ll be biracial, and they’ll be kind of doing
something together and laughing about it and they’ll all be
beautiful. You can almost see the big-idea tagline. Getty caters to an
American East Coast design culture that’s attempting to describe
the world for a lot of national corporations.” Getty’s
Andrew Saunders thinks that logic is a bit too simple. “I think
it’s fair to say we’ve worked hard to avoid
homogenization,” he says. “Perhaps demand for pre-shot
imagery has at times outpaced the producers’ ability to innovate.
Trying to persuade photographers to evolve when they’ve had
financial success is difficult. It’s our biggest challenge. Getty
Images has always championed—and, I would argue,
enhanced—the creative direction of the agencies and collections it
has acquired.”

Photographers and art buyers who don’t
agree are finding increasingly varied ways to avoid working with Getty.
Says Reid, “A lot of photographers have gone back to marketing
themselves directly, discovering other ways to put their images onto the
market.” One such option is Digital Railroad, a website founded
four years ago that allows agencies and photographers to self-publish
work. It returns 80 percent of sales to the photographer.
“We’re not an agency, we’re a marketplace. We let
anyone publish, and the best get voted to the top,” says Evan
Nisselson, the company’s founder. “The holy grail is a
community that’ll replace the need for gatekeepers. They [are the
ones who] keep the best images from being seen by buyers.”

The
creation of alternative photography venues coincides with a transition
in the types of projects art directors are working on. Web projects can
support stock that would never be viable for print: low-res, relatively
small, and sometimes free, non-copyrighted images often suffice. And
since users of those sites, and of cell phones and other portable small
screens, are already accustomed to such pictures, an upswing in demand
for more polished (and more expensive) photos seems unlikely.
“Getty was founded to sell images for print, but buyers are using
images in different ways, figuring out new sources, and expecting to pay
less,” says PDN’s Walker. As video takes over the web,
buyers may even start turning away from still images altogether.

While
Getty appears to be unshakable, its future may well be at the mercy of
such changes in the business. Perhaps the most significant threat the
company faces is the rise of so-called microstock agencies, like
BigStockPhoto and Shutterstock, which accept images from nearly anyone
and sell them for as little as $1. As one industry veteran puts it,
“Just like if you put 100 monkeys in a room with a hundred
typewriters and one would eventually type Shakespeare, some of these
photos are decent based on sheer volume.” Getty reacted by buying
iStockphoto, an industry pioneer, in 2006; Corbis, Getty’s much
smaller rival, announced last June that it would create its own
microstock site. Those are flank-protecting moves. “If
someone’s going to cannibalize your business, better it be one of
your other businesses,” said Getty’s Jonathan Klein last
year. It’s still a potentially dire situation for both agencies.
Even Design Army’s Pum Lefebure notes that she prefers the steep
discounts offered by iStockphoto and others: “If we want an image
of sky or grass, I’d rather spend $10 than $350.”

That
said, Getty’s understanding of its foes and its own shortcomings
puts it in a formidable position—one that it is defending through
expansion into new territory. In June, Getty bought Pump Audio, which
licenses independent music for commercial clients. After the move, Klein
sounded a familiar note: “Today there is wide agreement in the
music industry that the market for commercial music licensing is
fragmented, inefficient and confusing, just as the imagery market once
was.” Klein sounds ready to Getty it.

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