Stock libraries are an often overlooked part of the creative industry, but I believe the best-selling collections of images offer us a revealing visual record of society’s aspirations. Or rather, they offer a revealing record of how stock libraries interpret society’s aspirations. The distinction is important, because the gap between the life we live and the images of life offered by libraries – and used by designers – is often enormous. I can imagine future anthropologists looking at today’s design work featuring stock images and saying ‘So this repetitive visual motif of businessmen shaking hands clearly held great meaning for people then.’ This is why any study of a period should be informed by an understanding of the clichÃ©s of the time.
It would be wrong to write all stock images off as hackneyed representations of the world, however. Many libraries have devoted time and resources to making their images more imaginative and more representative of diversity. The best libraries have gained the respect of designers by doing so. Even royalty-free images are now a popular solution in almost all studios, especially for abstract, object and landscape/ nature photography.
Despite this hard-won respectability, there is still one subject where stock falls flat on its face. People. Clearly, this is the most challenging subject and the problem is simple; readers and users react in a much more opinionated way to an image of a human than to, say, that of a flower. The appearance of an individual is packed with social meaning, and this causes problems if the messages created by a face, body, posture or clothes are different to those the designer has to convey.
This friction between meanings may explain why many libraries offer such bizarrely bland collections of people photography, especially business people. Take Business Day, a CD of royalty-free imagery from digitalvisiononline.co.uk. Business Day presents us with a photo essay in which a white, 30-something male executive gets up, exercises, commutes and goes to work – all with a smug grin on his chiselled face. The background could be any characterless EuroAmericAsian metropolis; the cast is an uncontroversial mix of professionals; the action shows efficiency, collaboration and achievement, spiced with earnest facial expressions and mobile phones. And yes, there are a few ‘handshake moments’ along the way.
This collection sets out to capture the scenes of a working day, but actually offers a corporate never-never world remote from most people’s experience of the office. The collection reminds me of the 1975 film The Stepford Wives, in which women in a small American town turn out to be androids designed by scientists working in cahoots with chauvinist husbands. In Business Day we are in Stepford again, this time to see the Stepford Executives. Incidentally, a search for ‘ugly people’ or ‘unusual people’ on the Digital Vision site turned up ‘Zero results’.
To be fair, Digital Vision is just one of many libraries offering such stuff, and the Stepford factor isn’t restricted to people at work. The Image Bank, for example, introduces its recent People, Contemporary Living collection with these rather chilling words: ‘People of the new millennium have arrived’. I wonder where their spaceship landed?
You might be tempted to argue that libraries have a social obligation to produce images of people closer to our collective reality. But this would be naive – libraries aren’t politicised creative communities, they are manufacturers engaged in the production of a volume product. And the reality is that there clearly is a market for such stuff. Libraries launch a new collection of images because they believe there is demand, not because they want to do some social engineering.
And herein lies the mystery: who are the designers using these strange depictions of life? I’ve never met a designer who’d admit to using a CD like Business Day. But I hope whoever does carries on. I find collections like Business Day entertaining and thought-provoking. They tell us a lot about how sections of the British creative industry view society. Also, just imagine the Business Day images in the portfolio of some acolyte of an engaged social photographer like Martin Parr. In that context, the same photographs might constitute an ironic statement about the gap between social reality and our collective fantasy of corporate life. Or maybe I’ve spent too much time looking at people in stock catalogues.