Justus Oehler, a partner with Pentagram, shares the same despairing view of photo library pictures that many other designers frequently voice. “I only use stock images when there is no other way around it and when there isn’t a very good budget,” he claims. Another reason for this exasperated tone when discussing library images is that, according to Oehler, “every other designer in London also has access to the pictures and the images themselves often look like murals”. Design Week readers may remember the alpine valley and sky scene which Coronation Street’s Hilda Ogden used to have on her living room wall to visualise Oehler’s point.
However, Oehler has found that his long-running book jacket projects for Faber & Faber are the perfect medium to make the most of stock images. “Library images are ideal for this type of design job because the designer has a limited budget, and as there are so many topics (Oehler designs approximately 400 book covers a year), it makes sense to use a specific existing image as opposed to commissioning one,” he says. “The interesting part is how designers choose to colourise the picture, crop it or incorporate it into a collage. Libraries are also useful as a source of fine art paintings and illustrations. But the key to finding the perfect picture is to find one that doesn’t look like a classic photo library image,” he explains.
Another photo library issue which irks Oehler is the way the libraries want their images back so soon after dispatching them to the design company. “I can understand why they want to keep tabs on their photographs, but the strict deadlines do tend to take the fun out of the selection process as you’re in constant fear of not getting them back in time and getting penalised,” he says. His favourite libraries are Magnum because “you always know what you will get and that it will be of a high standard,” and AKG because “they have everything”.
When Trickett & Webb partner Brian Webb was asked to design a brochure for the ISTD paper Monadnock that not only appealed to designers but branded the paper and pushed its American heritage, he turned to photo libraries for help. “There was no way that we could afford to send a photographer off to the US to capture images of retro Americana, so we raided library archives to find suitable pictures,” he explains. “The secret of using library photographs is not to forget the design idea. The problem with library images is that so many designers work around the picture rather than finding a picture to support the idea. It’s so easy to manipulate a photo library image on computer to achieve your idea that stock images are now of more use to designers than ever before,” he says.
Following this theory, Webb created a design which featured die-cuts and photographs galore to accentuate the quality of the paper and the corporate colours of the manufacturer. Webb’s design incorporated a series of die-cut playing cards which could be snapped out and kept by the recipient. This act, according to Webb, allowed for the designer to become involved with design and the paper on a more tactile level and to have a functional keepsake.
“Over the past five years photo libraries have increased the quality of their images and their presence. We now have enough catalogues to build a small house,” says Webb. “However, they are not as cheap as they used to be, and we have frequently seen images that we commissioned appearing in library catalogues before we have had the chance to actually use the original photograph,” he adds.
The budget issue was the driving force behind Lippa Pearce’s decision to use stock photography in its work for GE Information Services. However, design director Domenic Lippa adds as a caveat: “The use of photo library pictures requires a bit of lateral thinking. By cropping one-dimensional images in a certain way or using them to add credence to a piece of copy, the effect can have just as much impact as using commissioned photography. It’s a question of how the images are used, so that the client can, in a way, have a degree of ownership over the picture.”
Lippa Pearce initially approached GE Information Services with an audit it had undertaken, to produce a design and corporate identity strategy for the software and consultancy company. According to Pearce, the client’s main competitors tend to rely on banal pictures of people at work and lots of computer workstations. Lippa Pearce wanted to promote the company not only as a market leader, but position it as an intellectual company, whose printed material demanded more cerebral involvement from the reader to work out the associations between the company, the copy and the images in the brochure.
By using an unusually cropped picture of a globe on the inside front cover, Lippa was able to use GE’s corporate colours in a more powerful way. A colleague at Lippa Pearce wrote the copy, which Lippa used to full effect in relation to the images. For example, “a picture of a bear biting into a salmon illustrated the line in the copy which talks about satisfying demand just in time,” Lippa explains.
Lippa says all the images have been manipulated in some way. “We retouched a lot and added textures to give the pictures more personality. The key is to change them so significantly that you wouldn’t really compare them to the original picture. This gives us more artistic licence and responsibility as designers.”
Magnum Photos was in an unusual position for a photo library in the production of Our Working People – a book produced for the cigarette company Philip Morris to use as a lobbying instrument against the proposed European government ban on tobacco advertising. Instead of supplying images from its archives, Magnum chose the design group Black Sun to work with it on the project and chose five of its own photographers to shoot the images.
Magnum’s commercial director Liz Grogan was approached by BST:BDDP, the London agency of Philip Morris, to design the large-format book with them in three months. This was unfeasible so Magnum commissioned Black Sun.
Magnum photographers Martin Parr, Elliott Erwitt, Ian Berry, Ferdinando Scianna and Harry Gruyaert were dispatched to Europe for a week to capture reportage style pictures of Philip Morris employees and tobacco growers. The idea behind the book was to put a human face to the company and show that if the ban on tobacco advertising came into effect, these ordinary people would lose their jobs.
Five thousand copies of the book in five different languages were produced within the deadline and sent to trade unionists, heads of state and MPs. As Grogan says: “When it comes to photo libraries, there is no longer a conventional route.