Shooting gallery

Photo libraries are discovering that the more they specialise, the more they can accumulate – and the secret of success is in the marketing. Mark Wilson reports

The stock photography industry appears to be a thriving market with photo libraries constantly looking at different ways to attract new customers and ensure loyalty from long-term clients. Rather than the market being over-saturated with photographs galore, it seems that, with regards to stock images, there are never enough variations on a theme to whet a designer’s appetite.

The reason why photo libraries are so keen to embrace the creative industries is that this sector is where the budgets are larger and, if you’re lucky, your library’s image might be used in a great ad or piece of design which might gain more kudos and glamour for your archive. Consequently, the current motto for the larger, more general libraries appears to be that there is always a gap in the market for a new archive; the success of the collection depends on the way it is marketed.

It is with this sentiment that the Robert Harding Picture Library recently launched its Creative Resource section. Over the past few years, it seems that most libraries’ marketing departments have been falling over themselves to persuade designers and art directors that stock doesn’t equal dull and that archive images are a viable alternative to original, commissioned photography.

Doesn’t Robert Harding feel this move has come a bit too late into an already buoyant market? “It’s not a question of if there is room in the market,” he says, “but of how we market the resource. For years, Tony Stone Worldwide and Image Bank have been offering a creative collection, but all their work is in their own style. Our Creative Resource section covers a variety of styles as it is compiled from three international catalogues from leading global collections, such as the New York Sharp Shooters lifestyle collection. In this way, we can offer clients a selection of different material for whatever direction they want to go in. As a back-up we have two million images from the main library,” he adds.

Helena Kovac, managing director of the Comstock photo library, has found that “highest quality” specialist photographs are to be found in large general libraries. She argues that small archives haven’t got the capability to generate enough financial return to ensure that the images are regularly replaced every two to three years to keep the collection fresh and contemporary. She also adds that predominantly American images generally fail to impress the creative community in the UK.

“Comstock is run as a general library with specialised categories,” she explains. “Our business section has always been very successful, but even a photograph of two business-women in conversation over lunch will date very quickly. The food, clothes, styling, and computer all contribute to the picture having a shelf-life of a couple of years. You also have to ensure that the use of pictures is controlled. You couldn’t sell the same technology shot to Apple and IBM, for example. We have a production team in New York which researches trends and clients’ needs and liaises with the marketing department to produce fresh, relevant pictures. But you have to be careful when trying to sell American images in Europe as they often don’t look cosmopolitan enough,” she says.

“If more than a couple of clients request a certain type of photograph, then we’ll have it shot,” Kovac continues. “For us, production is always directly linked to demand. The pictures have to resell. That is why library images traditionally aren’t the type of pictures that you would want to hang on your wall. Our pictures are like working horses; they have to be useful, helpful and capable of illustrating an article. They aren’t created to adorn.”

Tony Stone Worldwide says it always attempts to find out what the client wants before producing new work for the resource. “In recent years, we have put special effort into developing key areas of the collection which we know our customers need a very broad range of, such as business and industry shots and nature and wildlife imagery. We are concentrating on subject areas that are often used conceptually,” says TSW creative director Stephen Mayes.

“Since the launch of our Visions of Nature catalogue there has been a huge uptake of creatives using animal images to illustrate concepts; for example, a gaggle of geese looking one way and one goose looking another is often used to show someone who stands against a crowd. Or a gorilla picture is often used to illustrate an overbearing boss,” he adds.

However, there are those who are successfully swimming against the mainstream libraries to specialise in sub-cultural images and experiment with alternative methods of working. The Cache Collection, formed by former advertising agency art director Chris Sharpe, aims to offer creative clients a unique image-sourcing

service. He established the collection because he believes that photo libraries have “so many negative connotations for good photographers”.

“From my agency experience, I saw so many clients frightened off by the normal photographic route because of price and lack of control over the image. So with Cache I’m offering a selection of personal and speculative work, and photographers like Nadav Kander have committed to the collection. It’s an ideas bank rather than a library. So I don’t have photographers on my books. It’s an alternative to the way photolibraries work by classifying images before they are shot, then going ahead to shoot photographs that will fit into their computer-search system. If people want a type of shot that I don’t have, then I will search for it and as a result I am able to unearth unusual talent,” Sharpe explains.

Sally and Richard Greenhill’s specialist photo library of social documentary images is a far cry from the working ethic of either Comstock or the Robert Harding Picture Library. The duo began their careers as photographers, and as young Communists went to China to record the Cultural Revolution. Their archive was established in 1971, when the pair realised that their images of China and social observations were in demand.

“We were, and still are, allergic to the very smooth images of the Eighties which unfortunately seem to be creeping back into fashion,” explains Sally Greenhill.

“We try to cover people in real situations. We take the majority of pictures and use our friends and family as models. Our clients are mainly Government bodies, magazines and publishers. Design consultancies and advertising agencies call infrequently for our images, but they usually want to use the pictures for ideas and mock-ups,” she explains.

The Greenhills find that shots of people date very quickly, but in terms of models, locations, and the “real” aspect of their photography, production costs are kept to a minimum. “For us, the interests of the heart have to come first, photography coming second. We think that this philosophy makes for more involved and interesting photographs,” Sally Greenhill adds.m

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