We shouldn’t be fatalistic about the decline of stock photography

14th September, 2010

Anyone seriously interested in “The State of the Industry” should subscribe to Jim Pickerell’s Selling Stock website. He reports faithfully on the picture library and agency world as a whole and uses his extensive expertise and knowledge to fillet through the figures to present much of the facts of the matter, albeit with a US bias, and has been doing so since the very inception of the digital revolution.

Like many, however, he tends to present economic processes and technological change as wholly determinate, immutable manifestations of “natural” capitalist forces that admit no contravention. “The Market” and those who, prior to the crash, were seen as “Masters of the Universe”, are thus mythologised as Joseph Schumpeter’s “Creative Destruction” is invoked:

Innovation by entrepreneurs is the force that sustains long-term economic growth, even as it destroys the value of established companies and labourers that enjoy some degree of monopoly power derived from previous technological, organizational, regulatory, and economic paradigms.

It is a common enough prognosis these days. “There is no alternative” to the depreciation. As photographers no longer piss about with smelly chemicals in the dark getting dermatitis and listening to Women’s Hour or tediously attaching labels to trannies and poking them into plastic sheets prior to shipping,  we have lost our “monopolisable skills” and must accept ever decreasing prices for a product that we’re told almost anybody can now produce. Those who question this wisdom or think otherwise are typically dismissed as foolishly idealistic, wanting a return to some previous pre-digital (and equally mythological as I recall) “golden age” of restrictive practices. We’re sort of Pre-Raphaelites of the Photo industry – though not as good looking, “Wheel Tappers” as one railway trade union editor put it – oh alright then “Luddites” (although popularly they are done a great disservice). In short, dissenters are characterised as wishful thinkers failing to comprehend the harsh commercial realities to which they must inevitably bend and submit or break.

Firstly, I feel this blinds us to understanding the development of the dominant business model and to the contradictions that it has and continues to develop – for example the divergence of the interest of between the supplier and the distributor or to put it another way, the business model undermines the content. Their fatalism demoralises us into giving up the possibility of competing on something other than price.

Secondly, these assertions divert us from the qualitative, ethical and ideational aspects of photography (and its delivery) – that which distinguishes great pictures. At one end of the industry “stock photography” is a “commodity” in the sense of being ubiquitous and generalizable. Typically a positivistic reaffirmation of the status quo and displaying a useful a tendency towards replicating “Fake pictures of Fake People”, it is like a machine rotating on the same spot. By contrast the best photography is limited only by history. It is specific, embodies something of the difficulties and complexities of real human experience, encapsulates contradictions or even denies the easy dominant social narratives. Intuition, intellect and events synthesise into inspiration or what Philip Jones Griffiths called “The upward spiral towards enlightenment… The more you see, the more you understand, and the more you understand the more you see”. Ideas are also a material force in the world. New businesses and modus operandi will continue to emerge as these dynamics unfold.

Finally, and forgive me for stepping back, but we should contemplate the fact that as the 70th anniversaries come around, at the time of Joseph Schumpeter’s writing the long years of the last Great Depression were finally ended when capitalism’s “creative destruction” was unleashed in the form of Hitler’s devastating rampage across Europe and the “Final Solution”.


John Harris is a branch member, photographer and also runs ReportDigital.co.uk. This article originally appeared on John’s blog.

2 Responses:

  1. Pete Boyd says:

    Should it not be ‘Philip Jones Griffiths’ rather than ‘Philip Griffiths Jones’?