106 ROYALTY FREE AT COMSTOCK
In June, Comstock, once again a leader, became the first major stock agency to
announce that it would be producing and marketing clip photo discs, as well as
continuing to license rights to images in the traditional manner. Henry
Scanlon, CEO of Comstock, prepared a long question an answer piece outlining not
only the reasons for this move, but a lot of the history of how Comstock, and
the industry, got to this point.
Photo District News published an extensive article in the September 1997 issue
based on this piece. While be believe that what was said in PDN is correct and
accurate as far as it went, Henry had a lot more to say in the full text of his
We believe that this document is critical background for anyone seriously
interested in the future of the stock photo industry. It is also vital
information for the business and financial leaders who are now taking over the
industry, and who have had little or no history in working with photographers.
Therefore, with Henry's permission, we are publishing the entire text as
This is a long file that will take may take a couple minutes to fully load and
will printout at about 30 pages. We recommend that you print it out for easy
THE IMPLICATIONS OF ROYALTY-FREE IMAGES FOR THE STOCK PHOTOGRAPHY INDUSTRY
Interview with HENRY SCANLON Chairman/CEO, COMSTOCK, INC. JUNE 11, 1997
© Copyright 1997, COMSTOCK, INC.
(Q) Why has Comstock entered the royalty-free arena, and why
The short answer is that our industry is at a watershed period of
its development and is in dire need of leadership to bring it
successfully into the 21st century in a way that works for all
parties: photographers, customers and agencies. No other entity
seems to have the ability or the willingness to provide that
leadership. We believe we have both of those things.
A longer answer is more complicated, and in this interview I'll try
to flesh out our views.
(Q) To what extent are current royalty-free providers impacting
the traditional photo agency business?
Despite what you might hear elsewhere from certain agencies who are
either out of touch with their own business, or for some reason
have incentives to be misleading, the massive inroads of
royalty-free images into the stock industry is having huge negative
impact on the traditional stock photo business.
Concomitant to-- and in some measure as an adjunct to-- the
royalty-free wave, digital access and uses of stock photography is
forever altering the underlying dynamic of the business.
Our industry is undergoing, and will continue to undergo (probably
at an accelerated pace), a sea-change.
This is not necessarily a bad thing.
However, to be a bit hyperbolic (but essentially correct) this will
play itself out in one of two ways:
- Either it will evolve positively, potentially ushering in a
golden age of photography (yes, that is possible and I can
definitely envision it).
- Or it will devolve into a careening "race to the bottom" and
usher in a sort of dark ages. That, too, is definitely possible.
Which way it goes will not be determined by the current purveyors
of royalty-free images. Quite predictably and (arguably)
appropriately, they have no concern for the effect that their
behavior might have on the viability of the business model of "traditional"
agencies. Indeed, to the extent that they can define traditional
agencies as anachronistic and unnecessary-- they will do so.
However, it is my opinion that they have created a business model
on their own side of the business that is foolish, ill-conceived
and ultimately unworkable for them . That is, in their headlong
rush to accomplish the quickest land-grab they can, competing on
price and price alone, they are careering down a road that will
lead not only to the destruction of traditional agencies-- but
their own debilitation as well.
Alarmist? I don't think so.
(Q) But wait a minute: if you talk to the big traditional
agencies, including Comstock, they'll tell you that business has
never been better!
True; that's what they'll say. And in many cases, including
Comstock, yes, that is, indeed, the case. But then, if you talked
to people on Wall Street in 1929, they would have told you the same
A few of those people on Wall Street-- a very few-- were warning
that there was a fundamental crack in the foundation and that the
sound that would be soon heard soon would be the crumbling of the
Believe me, the way the current purveyors of royalty-free are
setting up their business model has caused a huge crack in the
foundation of the entire industry-- and by "the entire industry" I
mean them, too. I believe that even they know that their own
business model does not work, and cannot work, over the long-term.
And, by the way, make no mistake about it: the real battleground
here is the Web. Period. That's where it will be fought and
that's where it will be won or lost. It will have nothing to do
with transparencies and it will have nothing to do with CD-ROMS.
Therein lies the problem for the business model of current
royalty-free providers. Without going into great detail, let me
just say that they are discovering that the business model they
have established for their disc products lays an extremely poor
foundation for maintaining profitability when individual images are
sold, royalty free, via the Web. Rather belatedly, they are
beginning to figure out that maybe, just maybe, the way
"traditional" agencies have organized themselves isn't entirely a
bad thing, that maybe, just maybe, there should be a pricing
structure associated with selling on the Web, and that maybe, just
maybe how you use the photograph ought to have something to do with
how much you're charged.
Here then, in a nutshell, is the general industry problem:
Royalty-Free can't figure out how to reconcile a more traditional
way of selling with the product that brought them to the dance
(and without which they have absolutely nothing to offer):
Meanwhile, traditional agencies have no idea how to reconcile
royalty-free (so called) with their business model.
Thus the irony: in the end, the royalty-free providers are going to
look a lot more like traditional agencies-- if they survive at all;
and the traditional agencies are going to gravitate towards a more
royalty-free-like, hassle-reduced system-- if they survive at all.
There is the definite possibility that there could evolve a kind
"mutually assured destruction" approach between traditional and
Lost in all this, of course, is the fact that if we are very, very
smart as an industry, and we recognize the benefits of both
traditional and royalty free, and find a way to reconcile them into
a package for the customers that makes sense for them and sense for
us-- the potential exists for a magnificent, healthy industry
capable of huge growth.
All that depends on how we play our cards now. It could go either
Now, is this "Web battle" something that's going to happen in the
hazy, distant future? Hardly. To quote Patrick Henry from a very
familiar speech: "The war has actually begun; our brethren are
already in the field. The next gale that sweeps from the North
will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms...."
(Q) The royalty-free companies have always said that they are
not a threat to the tradditional agencies, that they're going after
a different market with a different type of product.
Can you spell "B-A-L-O-N-E-Y"? Their primary target is now-- and
has always been- the core of the existing traditional market. And
why not? It's an easy, no-brainer sell.
Look at it this way: If you have an art director who has been
accustomed to paying $500 to $1,000 per image for one-time brochure
use, and you go to him with a disc with 300 images royalty-free for
$250-- that's the easiest sell in the world. There is no rocket
But what about the lower-end art director who's been buying clip
art for just a few bucks. Now you want to move him up into
photography. $250 doesn't look so cheap. Selling that person
requires some skill and some energy and some creativity.
The royalty-free companies have been predictably very successful
with the easy sell. They are far, far less so-- despite what they
might claim-- accomplishing the harder thing which is, indeed,
expanding the market into new territories.
Don't believe me? Go back over the last few years and track
their advertising efforts. They started off advertising a lot in the
magazines that were targeted at the "new markets"-- desktop publishers
and the like.
Pretty soon, however, the heavy ad dollars were going to the
Communication Arts magazines, Print and so on-- magazines targeted
directly at the traditional stock photography market.
Still don't believe me? Here are some direct quotes from a company
called Digital Vision. They recently sent out a catalog that
looks, walks and quacks exactly like every other traditional photo
agency catalog you've ever seen. Same size, same number of pages,
very similar pictures, you name it. But it's all royalty free.
This is from the flier promoting the catalog:
"WAKE UP...Had enough of paying inflated prices for
traditional stock library images?...an end to haggling, hassle,
canning and search fees."
Or this, from the copy in the catalog itself:
"WHY KEEP PAYING TRADITIONAL STOCK PHOTOGRAPHY PRICES?
...all [the royalty free images] come without the hassle, negotiations
and expense of a traditional stock library....With traditional stock
photography, you have to negotiate a fee for every image you use.
And if you want to use the image again, you usually have to pay again.
With Digital Vision royalty-free, you don't."
Does this sound like they have their eye on some kind of "new"
So let's disabuse ourselves of that fiction once and for all: The
royalty-free purveyors are out to cut the heart out of the
traditional stock photography marketplace and intend to do so on
one issue-- price. If, in order to insure themselves a prime seat
at the table of the "emerging market" (and yes, that market is
real, and it is enormous) they need to stand on the carcass of the
traditional agencies-- too bad.
(Q) You don't sound like you hold royalty-free companies in very
high regard. How come?
You're right, I don't, and it's because I have yet to see them do
anything that requires any real skill or creativity.
I mean, it's not like it never occurred to anyone that you could
sell a lot of photo discs if you offered the images royalty free.
In fact, quite the contrary. Don't forget, Comstock was the very
first photo agency to offer our pictures on CD-ROM as a delivery
system. This is over six years ago now. And, believe me, we heard
from everybody, especially the "software retailers" that they
wanted us to sell the stuff royalty-free. They were accustomed to
having a hard "product": you price it, you sell it, you forget it.
But we held the line and explained over and over that, number one,
photography as a "product" has unique characteristics, and,
number two, that it was not necessary to offer it royalty-free, that
business models could be adopted that provided enormous benefits to
the customer while preserving the financial underpinning of the
industry, the thing that would allow photographers to keep
producing photography and to forge careers doing so.
Help us educate the marketplace, we told them-- and they did. And
it was working. Slowly but surely.
But then, of course, people who had no ties to the traditional
industry came in and were, indeed, willing to do what was necessary
to create a royalty-free product for the marketplace. They looked
to the traditional side of the industry, figured out what we were
selling and who we were selling it to, slapped together some
images, and pumped them out on royalty-free discs.
But this has nothing to do with coming up with a creative idea. It
only required a willingness to do the obvious, expedient,
no-brainer thing-- without regard to the consequences for the
industry at large.
(Q) But some of these royalty-free companies are now enormously
successful. There must be a huge demand for their products,
Of course, there is! But I've never understood this crazy argument
that says that the eagerness of people to buy something is, ipso
facto, proof that it is a good thing. I mean, a lot of people want
to buy illegal converter boxes to cheat the cable companies, but
does the fact of the "demand" prove the legitimacy of the product?
Now, obviously, the royalty-free companies aren't doing anything
illegal; nor do I fault art directors for wanting to avail
themselves of something that works for them. I am simply saying
that despite what some people might have you believe, demand does
not bestow automatic virtue.
Let's look at what might be a closer (while, admittedly, still
imperfect) analogy: Suppose you've been buying your electricity
from Con Edison or some other utility company. You pay based upon
how much electricity you use, and there's a meter. Each month your
meter gets read and you have to pay. Of course, the price you pay
incorporates the ongoing cost to continue producing electricity.
It's sort of a hassle, but, then, you get to have lights. Now
suppose someone comes to you and says, okay, pay me 50 bucks and
I'll install a line that will give you all the electricity you want
for as long as you want it. One payment, one-time, that's it.
Attractive? Sure. Do you do it? Absolutely.
But there's a problem. The electricity doesn't come from nowhere.
It needs to be produced.
Over the short haul, with the $50 "royalty-free" electricity,
things are fine. Over the long haul, there's a big, big
Can you expect the guy selling the $50 one-time meter to care about
all that? Nope. He's after his 50 bucks as many times as he can
get it for as long as the good times roll. After that, he'll be on
to something else.
It's a little like the difference between a paper company committed
to re-forestation and the sustenance of an ongoing industry versus
a guy who buys a mountain, strips it, and then sells the lumber for
as little as it takes to unload it fast.
The required ingredients are not smarts or creativity-- only a
willingness to do it. The easiest thing in the world is to come
into an industry whose product acquires its value not as a mark-up
of underlying "ingredients" but, rather, by virtue of an
amorphous-- but real-- "talent" factor-- and drastically undercut
prices. Folks who manufacture chairs have only so low they can go
before they're selling for less than their cost to manufacture the
chair. But with lawyers or accountants or any other
service-oriented "product" such as professional photography there
is almost no bottom to how low it can be priced-- over the short
haul-- in order to counter-market against an hard-won existing
This happens in lots of industries, and, by the way, the people who
do it always wrap themselves in some mantle of noble purpose,
casting themselves as champions of the consumer, saving consumers
from the rapacious "traditional" price gougers. There's nothing
new here, nothing particularly innovative or exceptional.
In fact, in those areas where the royalty-free people could
demonstrate some creativity and insight-- they reveal just the
opposite. For example, they've created a generic name for what
they do-- "royalty free"-- that is stupid and misleading. What
the heck does that mean, anyway? I didn't establish that
nomenclature-- they did.
And how many of the royalty-free companies have the word "disc" in
their company or product name? If they had had any real vision at
all, they would have understood that the disc technology is interim
They'll claim that they are implementing some brilliant Web strategy
while the "traditionals" are asleep at the wheel. I would argue that
they're handling the Web the same way they've approached everything
else: Slam something out there, grab as much as you can as fast as
you can, irrespective of the consequences, and make hay while the sun
shines. And, again, they have every right to do that. And I don't
expect them to worry about preserving a business model that works for
"traditionals". But I do expect them to create a business model that
works for them-- and I don't see them doing that.
So, no, I'm not seeing any visionaries or innovators come leaping out
of royalty-free. I'm seeing some pretty ordinary opportunists
who don't understand the difference between photography and Muzak
(which is, in fact, the prior company of the owner of one of the
leading royalty-free companies. Now, does that explain a few
things to you?)
Sure they're making a lot of easy money. But remember: they have
had absolutely no significant competition from the traditional side
of the industry, people who have been in this business for a very
long time. They've been allowed to waltz through the marketplace,
totally unchallenged by the strongest entities in the business.
They haven't been required to be particularly smart.
At this point, of course, all that money can hide a multitude of
sins. We'll see what happens when things tighten up.
(Q) Is it true that photo agencies are turning photography into
just a "commodity"?
I've heard that a gazillion times, usually in some ASMP white
paper, and I've never quite understood what it's supposed to mean.
I assume the implication is that agencies treat photographs like
products instead of artwork. Now, we can either discuss that or we
can discuss how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, because
both have exactly the same relevance-- zero.
Of course photography is a "commodity" in the sense that it is
being purchased for dollars by people who expect it to sell
products and services for them. If Ogilvy & Mather buys a picture
they're not going to sit around and admire it for it's
Rembrandt-esque aesthetic quality. They're going to put it to use
selling toothpaste. Traditional agencies take the point of view
that if it's likely the picture is going to sell a lot of
toothpaste-- it should cost a high amount of money. Royalty free
companies take the position that they don't care. Just buy the
disc and leave me alone.
The problem is not that photography has become a commodity (it
always has been-- just ask Mathew Brady) it is that photographers
have become a commodity-- and that they have done to themselves.
(Q) What do you mean that photographers have made themselves a
This goes to the very crux of where we are as an industry-- and
probably where we're going-- and you cannot understand our industry
if you don't understand this "commoditization of photographers"
And the only way to understand it is to go back a bit and trace
some of the history: where we've been as a stock photography
industry and how we all got to where we are. So let's do that...
In 1982 I gave the only seminar on stock photography offered at
the 2nd annual Photo Expo-- which would later become the Viscomm show.
About 15 photographers signed up for the seminar. I made the
"The day is coming where any person hoping to have a career as a
professional photographer will have to have stock photography as a
component-- probably a major component-- of that career."
This statement was met with incredulous stares. It was considered
absolute lunacy. Remember: at that time, the stock photography
industry as we now know it did not exist. To the extent there was
a market for stock photography it was almost entirely editorial:
textbooks, magazines and so on. There was no market to speak of on
the commercial side.
Since the mid and late seventies, however, my partner, Tom Grill,
and I had been doing two innovative things that had begun, just
barely, to change the face of stock photography. First of all, we
had been shooting pictures specifically for stock-- and
specifically for the commercial market. Second, we had begun
bringing direct marketing techniques to the stock photography
industry: we were producing and distributing full-color catalogs of
stock photography to art directors.
A few years after we began producing catalogs, the Image Bank
followed suit. Between the two of us, Comstock and Image Bank,
hammering away at the commercial side, trying to convince art
directors and graphic designers around the world that they might--
just might-- consider using stock for their commercial projects,
the marketplace began to develop, the idea to take root.
And you need to understand that at that time, those of us shooting
stock for commercial and trying to take it to market were vilified
by the vast majority of photographers. Why? Because we were
perceived as threatening the very underpinning of photographers'
careers-- their assignment work.
But this was 1982. Stock was only beginning to register on the
professional photographers' radar screen. And here I was telling
photographers, the hardy few who had signed up for my seminar
(probably because all the good ones on assignments and portfolios
and lighting were full) that stock photography would eventually be
at the center of their careers: not at the outermost fringes as it
was then perceived-- but at the very core of the industry.
If anybody believed me at that time, they certainly didn't show it.
Finally, I told them something I truly believed, the thing that I
found most enthralling about this whole vision:
"I believe stock photography has the capability to usher in a new
golden age of photography."
What I meant by that was this:
If you go back to the mid '70's and the early 80's and read the
literature from the ASMP and other journals, you will find a
thematic lament amongst professional photographers. They
constantly bemoaned the fact that their profession required them to
operate under the strictures laid down by clients, art directors
and (heaven forfend) account executives at advertising agencies and
design firms, who hired them. They were compelled to shoot to
layouts, rarely if ever allowed to give full vent to their (the
photographers') creative ability. What they said they wanted, more
than anything else, was creative freedom-- and it was obvious that
such freedom would not be forthcoming within the architecture of
traditional commercial assignment photography.
But it was clear to me that if the industry played its cards right,
that sort of "creative liberation" could be ushered in by a
healthy, vibrant, creatively charged stock photography industry.
Now, for the first time, photographers could find their own ways to
communicate the ideas that needed to be conveyed. They could give
full volume to their creative voices. Creating this wonderful new
industry was, to my mind, a thrilling prospect.
So I began lecturing to ASMP groups all around the country. For
three years I wrote a column on stock photography for The Photo
District News . Later I wrote a similar column for American
Photographer magazine. I wrote a book published by Harper & Row on
stock photography that went into three printings.
And my theme was consistent: Creative liberation is at hand. It
lies in this wonderful new stock photography industry that we're
trying to build.
What I hadn't yet realized was that I had made a huge
miscalculation: I had believed that photographers really did want
what they were clamoring for-- creative freedom-- and that they'd
know what to do with it once they got it.
But that's not what happened. Instead, after a few organizations
(including but certainly not limited to Comstock) had finally
created a healthy, robust market for stock photography, lots of
photographers wanted in. Which was fine-- that was my intention
But instead of using it as an opportunity to create and grow and
stretch-- they found themselves standing alone in a creative
desert, without an art director's layout to shoot to-- and they
didn't know what to do.
So they did exactly what Jean Paul Sartre would predict they would
do: they ran as fast as they could away from the freedom that had
arrived. Lacking an art director's layout, they turned to a
simulacrum: other photographers' work, primarily as seen in stock
They looked at the pictures they saw in stock catalogs, figured they
could shoot pretty much the same thing-- and did.
From that point forward, rather than having a "golden age" of
creative photography, we have had a dark ages of the most
relentless, cynical, unscrupulous copying of one photographer by
another in the history of the industry. The bulk of the stock
industry now consists of people copying people who have copied
people who have copied people.
This has been done by photographers by the hundreds, with the
active encouragement of certain photo agencies.
About six years ago I tried to warn of the dangers of all this by
taking out a full-page ad in the Photo District News. For this I
was called, among other things, a "Nazi".
Now, here is the irony, the thing that brings us full circle to the
issues of today:
These same photographers who have made careers-- sometimes fabulous
careers-- by doing nothing more than copying the work of other
photographers, are now screaming bloody murder because the
royalty-free providers are doing exactly what they did: copying
images and flooding the marketplace with them. Only this time
This could have been prevented six or seven years ago if the
photographer-side of the industry had taken a stand to protect the
spirit of the copyright laws. Everyone was in favor of preventing
clients from copying images-- but no-one was willing to take a
stand to prevent photographers from copying each other.
If you have hundreds and hundreds of photographers around the world
doing essentially the same thing, believe me, those photographers
have become a commodity. And a few of them-- maybe a lot of them--
are going to be more than willing to offer their services to the
Trust me: Even as we speak, the royalty-free companies are out
there getting photographers to systematically copy pictures from
the catalogs of every traditional photo agency and are going to be
flooding the market with them on a royalty free basis.
As I say, just a few years ago the right moves could have been made
by photographers to prevent this, but it is far, far too late to do
anything about it now.
(Q) Just how worried should photographers be?
"Photographers" don't have to be worried at all. In fact, for
reasons I'll explain in a minute, they have good reason to be
However, my definition of "photographer" is very different from
that of a lot of people who call themselves photographers-- but who
are really just technicians. Now, sometimes they are extremely
skilled technicians, but they are mere technicians nonetheless.
And the technicians have been predominating, overwhelmingly, in the
stock photography industry-- to the point where the real
"photographers" have been buried under the technicians' avalanche
And these photo technicians, doing nothing more than copying the
work of others who went before them, some of them making tons and
tons of money in stock, should not only be worried, they should be
going to night school to seek an alternative career. And the photo
agencies that have been built around their efforts-- and there are
a few (and some of them are among the biggest)-- should be more
The party's over-- or soon to be.
(Q) So, are you saying that everyone who's struggling with the
downturn in the assignment market is simply a photo technician?
Not a real photographer?
Of course not. Just as with any business in any industry, the
cycles are caused by a tapestry of factors. Those factors
generally fall into two broad categories: those things that are not
within an individual's control, and those things that are within
their control. Examples of the former would be the general
economic atmosphere, price and margin pressure applied by clients,
and so on. The latter would include such things as the person's
business acumen. A great photographer who has absolutely no
ability to market himself or herself is at a huge disadvantage no
matter what their skill level. But that aspect is within their
control: They can either do what's necessary to get smart on a
business level, or they can align themselves with someone who does
have those skills.
Nevertheless, I stand by my statement that the advent of
high-quality stock photography exerted significant pressure on
those assignment photographers who were bringing little to the
party other than a knowledge of the technology. And, by the way,
there is historical precedent for this phenomenon even before the
stock dynamic we're talking about now. Think back to the advent of
the 35mm camera. Prior to its popularization, a "photographer"
needed all kinds of technical knowledge (to say nothing of a strong
back) in dealing with view cameras, swings and tilts, plates and so
on. In many cases the mere knowledge of how to use the esoteric
equipment qualified a person to be paid for taking a picture.
The 35mm changed that dramatically. All of a sudden it was real
easy to take a mediocre picture-- no great technical mystery was
involved. So the people whose expertise was technical rather than
creative and who could therefore be replaced by the easier
equipment got whacked. But the ones who had not only a knowledge
of the equipment, but also a real photographic sensibility,
adapted, survived and prospered. It's a weeding out process that
happens continually in just about every business.
(Q) Why then do you say that real "photographers" don't have to
Remember I told you how dismayed and dispirited I was to find that
what I had hoped would be a "golden age" of photography turned out
to be a "dark ages" of copying? How could I have been so wrong, I
wondered... Well, I've come to believe that I wasn't wrong about
the fact and the vision-- I was wrong about the timing.
Here's my view of how our industry is going to evolve over the next
few years, and why I think it can be (if we do the right things
now) a wonderful thing for the true "photographers" out there:
Our industry is going through a kind of mitosis-- one cell
splitting into two-- that is being brought on by royalty-free.
Interestingly, this is similar to the original "mitosis" that
occurred between assignment and stock as we now know it. There are
definite parallels between what happened then and what is happening
now with royalty-free, so let's take a quick look at that. If we
understand the underlying dynamic then-- it can illuminate what's
happening now and illustrate why it is I believe true
"photographers" might just be able to anticipate a coming "golden
In the mid 1970's, very slowly, certain photos that had been
entirely considered the purview of assignment photographers began
being purchased as stock photos, instead. This tiny little "stock"
cell began to split off from the "assignment" cell.
And it began to grow. And grow. And there was one primary reason
it grew-- and then a secondary reason that flowed from that:
The primary reason has to do with the one party to this little
playlet of ours that nobody seems to be talking too much about: the
customer. Remember them? They're the ones who pay us for what we
do-- or they don't pay us if somebody does it better (or cheaper).
The primary reason commercial stock photography eventually took off
like wildfire was because it made complete, absolute sense for the
customers to buy it. Put another way, if the job of the photo
industry is to find the best way for the people who produce
photography to interface with the people who use photography, then
stock photography was and is, in many, many cases, the best way--
for the customer.
The secondary reason that flowed from the primary one was that
photographers got on board with the concept. That is, some very
talented people, all of whom had been making their livings
shootings assignments, began bringing the same talent-level
to stock, to the point where the quality of the imagery rivaled or
exceeded what buyers could expect to achieve if they hired a
top-notch photographer for thousands of dollars a day out of New
York or Chicago or Los Angeles.
However much it might have made sense to alter lots of transactions
from traditional assignment purchases to stock purchases, it
wouldn't have worked if the quality of the images available to the
buyers wasn't sufficiently high to satisfy their needs.
But there was something else going on, even more important.
I remember a day in 1973, probably the second or third day after I
came to New York, knowing absolutely nothing about photography,
advertising, design, business or anything else for that matter.
I was going through a large directory called the Standard Directory
of Advertising Agencies. (You know, "The Red Book"). I was trying
to figure out what this industry was all about and how it related
to what my friend, Tom Grill, a highly successful assignment
photographer, did. Tom had been thinking a great deal about the
notion of stock photography, what it might be and what it might
become. As I looked through the Red Book I distinctly remember
pointing to an advertising agency listed in Davenport, Iowa and
asking Tom, "How do these guys get photography?"
"That's the point," Tom said, "they don't". Tom had a unique
perspective because he had started his photography career in
Pennsylvania, working for local art directors, before coming to New
York. He knew what both situations were like, both for
photographers and art directors.
He told me that for the most part there are terrific art directors
out around the country but they almost never get to use
high-quality photography for their clients. The best photographers
can't make a living unless they come to one of the large urban
centers, so a guy in Davenport who wants to use anything other than
a product shot needs to fly to Chicago and hire a photographer
there. Even if there is a great photographer locally (and yes,
there were and are)-- the modeling agencies and all the support
Thus, using high-quality photography was incredibly expensive, far
beyond the financial reach of local clients who were doing a small
capabilities brochure, and therefore extremely rare. More often
than not, they didn't use photography at all. They would try to
create graphic interest with typeface, papers-- stuff they can send
As Tom and I poured over The Red Book (remember, this was well
before the days when specific lists of art directors such as
Creative Access even existed), we realized that whereas, yes, there
were a relative handful of huge advertising agencies in New York,
Chicago, Los Angeles, etc., and whereas these large agencies were
besieged with the portfolios of every major photographer in the
world-- there were gazillions of small agencies throughout the
country who had no access at all to high-quality commercial
photography at prices their clients could afford.
Meanwhile, there were some people doing interesting things. The
late Sam Zerember, who was both a photographer and a printer, had,
on a relatively small scale and rather tentatively, coupled some of
his pictures with his other profession, printing, and produced a
small stock photo "catalog".
H. Armstrong Roberts in Philadelphia, one of the oldest photo
agencies in the country, had pioneered, decades before, the idea of
going out and shooting pictures specifically for stock.
But, for whatever reasons, none of this had gained a critical mass.
So far, nothing had successfully "imprinted" on the minds of art
directors the notion that they could even consider using stock
photos for commercial projects.
Tom and I began to "connect the dots". Being young and foolish, we
began doing the two things that everyone said was insane: we began
hiring models, makeup people, stylists, whatever, flying to the
Caribbean or wherever, shooting pictures specifically for stock
with no specific client in mind-- and then direct marketing them
via catalogs, on a large scale, to the guy in Davenport, Iowa, and
the thousands like him.
At roughly the same time, The Image Bank opened its doors with the
same goal in mind: How can we convince art directors to consider
using stock for their commercial projects? TIB brilliantly
implemented a strategy that was, in its crucial aspects,
essentially a brand extension process. How can you convince art
directors who think only of assignment photographers to consider
buying stock? Gather together a group of the most recognized names
in assignment photography-- and announce to the world that
you sell their stock. Again, classic brand extension.
So, you had Comstock hammering away at the market with a tactic
that tried to show art directors pictures, via catalogs, that would
get the reaction, "Wow, I didn't know you could get a picture like
that in stock!", and Image Bank trying to get the reaction, "Wow!
I didn't know that great photographer also sold stock!"-- and the
eventual result, after a long struggle, was the creation of a
"position" for stock in the minds of art directors and the
development of a market for photography in general that dwarfed
anything the industry had experienced during the days when
assignment photography was the only "cell" on the commercial
In addition, as a direct result of this emergence of a stock
photography market, something else was happening at the same time--
but you wouldn't have noticed it unless you were looking out of the
corner of your eye: assignment photography began to change.
As more and more art directors began turning to stock, the question
became-- under what circumstances would they and should they turn
to assignment photography, instead? (Now, I'm not talking about
product-specific shots that have been and always will be done as
assignment photography. I'm talking about the "lifestyle" and
"model-released people" shots that were becoming the main-line
images of stock.)
The answer was that they would turn to assignment photography when,
one, they wanted to avail themselves of a superbly talented
photographer who could bring something truly unique to the process,
and, two, they could afford it.
And, because all of a sudden the crucial ingredient of assignment
photography was real photographic talent-- and merely knowing your
way around a camera and lights wasn't good enough-- a great many
people who had been making their livings as "assignment
photographers" took a huge hit. Photos that had been their "bread
and butter" were now being bought out of stock. Large swathes
began being cut out of the assignment market by stock, and there
were many, many casualties. But then, a lot of people were left
standing, too. Who? I'll tell you who: The real photographers.
The Gregory Heisler's and the Jack Reznicki's and many more. The
technicians were all but eliminated, or relegated to standard
product shots, while the true photographers not only survived--
they found that they were being hired for their real photographic
talents, not just their technical skills.
In short, the advent of stock photography caused a dramatic
separation of the wheat from the chaff in the assignment market,
and, in fact, enhanced the creativity-level of the assignment work
Finally, the real booster rocket appeared when that market for
assignment photography began to grow as a direct result of the boom
in the stock photography market. Remember the guy in Davenport,
Iowa? In the early days of stock photography there were literally
thousands of sales we made where that stock photo purchase by an
art director was the very first time they had ever used a
photograph at all. Over time, having become familiarized with the
process, they began to incorporate photography into their projects
more and more-- and in many cases realized that their best solution
was not as stock photograph, it was an assignment shot done by a
Can you see where I'm going here? There is yet another "mitosis"
occurring, this time between "traditional" stock and "royalty-free",
and it is similar, in many crucial respects, to the first "mitosis"
between stock and assignment.
If over the last fifteen or twenty years there has been a sort of
"two tiered" commercial photography industry between the assignment
tier and the stock tier-- there will now be three, with the third
tier being royalty-free.
Get used to it. It's here, it's happening, it's not going away,
and it is going to dramatically affect that thing I keep talking
about: "The way people who produce photography interface with the
people who buy photography."
Just as stock made vulnerable the "technicians" in assignment
photography-- so too will royalty-free decimate the ranks of
technicians currently making lots of money in "traditional" stock.
Will the last guy to shoot a picture of a family in front of a
house with a "For Sale" sign or a businessman leaping over a hurdle
or a grandmother working in a garden please turn out the lights?
Can you spell "r-o-y-a-l-t-y f-r-e-e?"
Where then is this potential "golden age"? Think about it: Once
90% of the pictures currently being sold by "traditional" stock
agencies-- the copies of copies of copies-- gets pushed down into
royalty-free (and that is exactly what is happening, as we speak)
I'll tell you what's left: photographers. Not technicians--
photographers. The hardy few. The ones who have been lurking out
there, waiting for their chance, waiting for the "noise" to abate
so that they can bring some real creativity, some real vision and
unique sensibility to the "traditional" stock tier of our
Can't be done? It's already being done, and has been, quietly but
extremely effectively, by certain "traditional" agencies around the
world. Take a look, for example, at Sharpshooters in Miami. Talk
to its president, Susan Turnau, and she'll tell you her company has
never, ever felt compelled to jump on the "I can shoot that, too"
bandwagon that so many agencies have been literally built around.
Quite the contrary. She has created a thriving business by
encouraging her photographers to be photographers with true
photographic integrity, and here's how much royalty-free will
affect her business-- zero.
I believe the true locus of a potential "golden age of photography"
will be "traditional" stock photography after the technicians have
been sent to the locker room by royalty free. Art directors can be
counted on to "get it". They will not be coming to traditional
stock to buy yet another picture of a business guy at a computer
taken by a photo agency's staff photographer squirreled away in a
studio on the London Docklands. Rather, they will come to
understand that for a certain type of picture they will opt for
royalty free. But when they get the opportunity to really spread
their creative wings, they'll look to the traditional stock
agencies whose material will have been elevated by astonishingly
creative photographers to levels our industry has never known. And
that segment of the market, that "traditional, rights-controlled"
stock "cell" will increase in size and prices will go up.
That assumes, of course, that we don't let the current royalty-free
providers bumble along unchallenged and so screw up our industry
that it becomes corroded beyond repair-- in which case all bets are
Oh, and by the way, even if all things go well, there will be more
money made in royalty-free than in any of the other two segments
combined. Unfortunately, most of that money won't be made by
photographers. Congratulations: you did it to yourselves.
(Q) What do you mean that most of the money made in royalty-free
will not be made by photographers?
As I've been saying, real "photographers" will be making their
money in assignments and a highly elevated traditional stock. The
money in royalty free will be made by the people who sell it, not
the people who create it. They will have no trouble finding a
handful of the photo "technicians" who are currently over-running
traditional stock-- to produce royalty free images that flood the
market. Those few will make some money over the short term, but
even they will eventually be looking for a day job.
Put another way: assignment and traditional stock photography will
be photography-driven; royalty-free will be (already is)
marketing-driven. As I've said, this could have been prevented
some years ago if photographers and photographers' organizations
had had a scintilla of vision and taken a stand against colleagues'
wholesale copying of each others' work, but they didn't, and now
the toothpaste is way, way out of the tube, and there is absolutely
no way to prevent the royalty-free purveyors from essentially
copying the vast majority of the current stock "visual vocabulary"
and issuing it as royalty-free.
(Q) Isn't it wishful thinking on your part to assume the
Royalty-Free producers won't be competing for these real photographers
as well? And maybe getting into the traditional stock business