The weird science of stock photography.

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July 14 2008 1:06 PM

Everyone Will Be Lonely Eight Months From Now

The weird science of stock photography.

(Continued from Page 1)

Love was at No. 14 in 2006 and cracked the list at No. 10 in 2007, but so far it's dropped out of the top 25 in 2008 (even though Valentine's Day has already come and gone). Waggoner's take: The worsening economy has perhaps booted romance from top-of-mind status. Along the same lines, shopping bag had once been a top 250 term but is now expected to disappear from the top 500 for 2008. Waggoner attributes this to flagging consumer enthusiasm.

Beyond the numbers, sometimes the composition of images can tell a story. "We saw a big shift after 9/11," says Waggoner. "Family entered the top 10 in search keywords and in revenue-generating subject matter for us, but there was also a change in how families were shown. Whereas before it had generally been everybody in a row, now a child was often moved to the foreground of the photo with the parents' attention focused on him. And there was a lot more black and white being used, suggesting a sense of nostalgia." In the last couple of years, the trend has shifted back toward photos of lone people looking into the camera. Waggoner surmises that this is "testimonial" imagery, playing on the appeal of real people as authentic-seeming message-bearers.

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As a rule of thumb, the lifespan of an image depicting contemporary fashions and technology is roughly four years. "That's the maximum shelf life for, say, a woman walking down the street talking on a cell phone," says Waggoner. "After that, she's retro."

Getty's image of an oil rig in romanticized turmoil. Click image to expand
Getty's image of an oil rig in romanticized turmoil.

Certain individual images, though, can have a curious staying power, an appeal that's hard to explain. Among those Waggoner singles out: 1) A particularly dramatic photo of a midocean oil rig in a storm, taken way back in 2000, that was licensed 107 times in the past year (perhaps because it nicely captures the idea of oil in turmoil—a major story line in recent months). 2) A black-and-white shot of a woman doing yoga—with top quality production values and art direction—that went for $65,000 in a single sale guaranteeing exclusivity to the client. 3) An image of a smiling girl wearing headphones that became one of Getty's top performers, selling 636 separate times in one year.

Of course, it is possible for an image to become too popular. A few years ago, a model/actress living in Portland did a one-day photo shoot on the campus of Reed College. She frolicked around the grounds and inside a classroom, wearing a purplish hat she'd borrowed from the wardrobe coordinator. The photos taken that day have subsequently appeared in ads for both Gateway and Dell; on the Web sites for a Canadian media planning company, a British science museum, the BBC, Microsoft Finland, Greyhound bus lines, etc.; and on the covers of countless books. She has come to be known as Everywhere Girl, and, yes, she has a blog.

What can we glean from Everywhere Girl's amazing ubiquity? Perhaps she signals a rising demand for images of young Caucasian women in educational settings. Perhaps she captures a certain bohemian individuality. Or maybe she just has a pretty smile and looks cute in that hat.

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