“As for me, I’m shooting what I’ve always shot: the world.” —Harvey Lloyd, stock photographer
Stock photography is a rapidly growing, global industry — and thanks to mass proliferation on the internet, a billion-dollar one, too. But let’s not kid ourselves: we look down on these hypercommercial images and consider them akin to junk food: cheap, ubiquitous, and easily digestible. We treat Getty Images with the same thinly veiled disdain as we do McDonalds; this stock photo of a cheery blonde (below), supposedly one of the most widely used images on the internet, might as well be a stale Big Mac.
These sorts of elitist attitudes often trickle down from our intelligentsia. In March 2012, highbrow art rag Frieze Magazine published a story called “Stock Piles” by Isobel Harbison, examining the developing economy of the stock industry and the subsequent rise of contemporary artists incorporating this sort of digital imagery into their work.
In the first paragraph, Harbison calls stock photography “online debris.” She goes on to claim that “stockpiles of debris in an animated world … [are] cluttering our online landscapes.” Harbison laments being “hemmed in by junk,” and even goes so far as to compare this “digital detritus” to the piles of industrial waste haunting Earth in the Disney movie Wall-E.
But maybe we should stop treating the familiarity and predictability of stock imagery as a cause for derision. After all, stock photos’ easily understood meanings stem from their ability to incorporate instantly recognizable visual signs (which is also why they often contain so many cliches). In a way, stock photos function as highly effective cultural intermediaries by holding a mirror up to the commercial world around us and reflecting the current state of its visual tropes.
Similarly, the mass production and proliferation of stock images can be seen as a democratic impulse; after all, Getty partnered with Flickr so that it could trawl the vast repository of mostly amateur photography hosted there for quality content — which they market and license, giving a 20–30% commission to the original photographer.
Before you get up in arms about how this practice is exploitive and a giant rip-off, the fact is that many photographers participating in the program don’t mind it at all — they’re usually uploading photos that weren’t making money anyway (for whatever reason), and the Getty/Flickr route is widely accepted as a way to monetize content that was lying dormant to begin with.
Increasingly, artists of all kinds are appropriating and examining the conventions of stock images in their work. For example, DIS magazine is currently holding an open-to-the-public photo shoot throughout February at New York’s Suzanne Geiss Company, where a large group of collaborators, including Ryan Trecartin and Jogging, have been invited to produce images that reference stock photography’s themes — but slyly subvert them in a variety of ways — such as inserting odd, out-of-place elements into the periphery of an otherwise boring shot. The magazine also plans to launch an entire issue this month dedicated to examining the stock image industry.
Perhaps one of the most well-known instances of art make from stock imagery is by internet artist (and co-founder of JstChillin.org) Parker Ito. After commissioning oil painting replicas of the “parked domain girl” from an art-on-demand company in China, Ito permuted each one with different creative flourishes (a couple blobs of paint here, scrawls of his name there … ) and thus created the series, The Most Infamous Girl in the History of the Internet/Attractive Student/Parked Domain Girl (2011).
Ito’s attempt to break down the stilted sheen of commercial photography by adding splashes of his personalized touch is similar to DIS’ attempt to subvert stock photography’s convention by creating their own “bizarre” versions. Both reflect urges to break down the veneer of perfection that coats the entire stock industry.
Another artist, Hannah Sawtell, shares this impulse — but tackles it in yet another different way. In “swap meet (optic)” (2010), Sawtell runs transitions on stock images for desktop backgrounds into each other, causing the images to bleed together — directing our attention to manual labor of these visible transitions, which are usually invisible devices.
So maybe the use of stock images in art is merely the digitized version of harvesting material and inspiration from the world around us. Or maybe we can just give up pontificating, and acknowledge that stock photography is merely the presence of God.
Related: “DIS Magazine’s Website of Subversive Stock Photography Is Like Shutterstock on Ketamine” by Michelle Lhooq