The weird science of stock photography.

Advertising deconstructed.
July 14 2008 1:06 PM

Everyone Will Be Lonely Eight Months From Now

The weird science of stock photography.

Image from Getty's NASCAR shoot. Click image to expand
An image from Getty's NASCAR shoot

A while back, a friend of mine—a guy who does a lot of directing work—was asked to shoot some rather odd film footage. It was all brief scenes of people ignoring each other. Families talking on cell phones, couples tapping at adjacent laptops, everyone looking in opposite directions.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

These vignettes were commissioned by a company that sells stock photos and video to various clients—including, in large part, advertisers. The hope was that footage like this would appeal to customers who need to visually convey a mood of modern disconnectedness. Leaving aside the bleak and omnipresent nature of the subject matter—they could have just put a tripod on a random street corner—I was startled to realize that stock photo and video purveyors actually create material in anticipation of demand. (I'd somehow failed to consider that stock pictures could be made, not just found.) These suppliers of the world's commercial imagery are making bets on what life will look and feel like in the near future. Which made me wonder: What else, besides an ongoing technological dystopia, do they imagine waiting ahead? 

To learn more, I got in touch with the creative research department at Getty Images—a major player in the "visual content distribution" field. (Slate is one of Getty's many clients.) The job of the creative research team is to have photos and video waiting when demand for specific visual content crops up. Some categories of future demand can be fairly easily anticipated. (For instance, Getty has been diligently preparing content related to this summer's Olympics.) Others are rooted in long-brewing demographic changes. (Getty has done shoots centered on the aging of baby boomers and the growth of America's Hispanic population.) But some trends are harder to predict—like an economic downturn or a burgeoning interest in holding elaborate funerals for pets (both of which Getty has needed to address). And sometimes demand can suddenly spike in response to an event.

"We had a bad day when Dolly was cloned," says Denise Waggoner, vice president of creative research at Getty. "We hadn't been studying biotechnology, and suddenly everyone wanted a shot of 25 sheep on a seamless white background. So now we try to keep our toes dipped in the water in lots of different fields, so we can be ready."

Part of the challenge is guessing which abstract concepts clients will want to illustrate—and then determining how best to illustrate them. "We recently did a big Nascar shoot," says Waggoner. "Stock car racing can convey teamwork, speed, power, professionalism. But you have to get everything right for the imagery to really resonate." Getty expects that this material could be used in marketing for a range of clients, including insurers, banks, pharmaceutical companies, and credit-card brands. For maximum versatility, the shoot was carefully orchestrated so that no logos would appear on the cars or tracks, with all models and locations signing releases.

While it's fun to ponder which future trends Getty's seers are banking on, it can also be illuminating to learn which sorts of images have been most attractive to their clients in the recent past. Getty's Web site gets more than 3 million unique users each month, all scouring it for purchasable content. Getty gave me lists of the most popular search terms on their database for 2006, 2007, and the first half of 2008. Only three entries showed up in the top 10 on all three lists: business, people, and woman. (Woman climbed from eighth to fifth to first, which Waggoner attributes to the increasing global presence of women in the workplace and thus the increasing global demand for photos and video depicting women in the workplace.)

Other terms fade in and out. Soccer makes a single top-10 appearance in 2006—a World Cup year. (Getty will refresh its soccer content as the 2010 World Cup approaches in the expectation that soccer will be ascendant.) In a development that may be of no surprise to you, Christmas has been showing up earlier and earlier. "It hit the top 10 in June last year," says Waggoner. "We usually don't plan for it until August."

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.

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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