79 UNHAPPY U.S. PHOTOGRAPHERS AT TSI
July 8, 1997
Tony Stone Images has just released their Interpretations catalog and many U.S. photographers are dissatisfied and distressed.
According to TSI the catalog was built on the premise that no image has a single meaning and acknowledges that the full range of possible meanings cannot be predicted before a client develops an application.
"By being too specific in the matching of words to images, past catalogs have restricted the client's imagination, inhibiting unforeseen applications, and limiting uses," says Brian Wolske, President, Tony Stone Images North American Operations. "If we are trying to partner with our clients we must think as they think: conceptually. We must escape the mentality of a catalog list."
The goal may be laudable, but execution has left many of TSI's top U.S. shooters disappointed and disillusioned. They are upset at the way the editing was handled, as well as in the overall look of the final product.
Photographers who don't normally operate in the rarified atmosphere of major agency catalog production need to understand how a high percentage of the TSI images are normally produced and selected. Similar strategies are used at other leading catalog agencies.
TSI has production and editing teams in London and Los Angeles. The agency's most productive photographers work closely with these editors and usually clear ideas before they start shooting. There is usually a great deal of back and forth discussion and art direction of the final shot which can deal with everything from models to lighting to propping, etc.
Sometimes, the ideas come from TSI's in-house art directors. Sometimes, shots are re-done if they are not exactly what the in-house art directors/photo editors had in mind. Photographers can spend thousands of dollars on one shot. Some photographers spend months prior to the release of a new catalog shooting specifically for that product, under the guidance of their art director.
The photographer pays all up-front production expenses with no guarantee of any income, or even that the image will be included in the catalog. In the past, an image approved by the art directors was almost assured of making the next catalog. Most catalog images earn a good return. But, images that sit in the general file often earn little or nothing. Thus, given the high costs of production in money and time, it is critical that images make the catalog for the photographer to realize a profit.
Normally, when it comes time for the final catalog edit, several art directors from Los Angeles, who have worked closely with the U.S. photographers, go to London to participate in the selection process. This time no one from Los Angeles was invited.
Images that the Los Angeles art directors had been very enthusiastic about at the time of shooting didn't make the catalog. Images that both the photographers and U.S. art directors agreed were not quite up to par, somehow got in.
Obviously, picking pictures that will become best sellers is a very subjective process. No one has a clear cut answer, in advance. Nevertheless, these photographers and art directors have been doing this for a long time, and have statistics to back up their judgement. I want to emphasize that the people complaining are not average photographers, but top shooters who have been producing successful images for TSI for years. Each individual's annual gross sales for TSI tends to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In the Interpretations catalog European photographers got a much stronger representation than they have had in the past, and U.S. photographers have less representation.
It is argued that this decision was made as a matter of fairness because U.S. photographers have dominated previous catalogs. In addition, Europe has claimed for a long time that most catalog imagery is too American.
Many of the Americans feel that the overall style of the images in Interpretations is out of sync with the mainstream uses in the U.S. market. These images may sell well in Europe. They may be the kind of images "trendy" U.S. designers like to look at. But when these designers pick the images they will use in the brochures and ads for their clients, they tend to choose images that are less "weird" and "far out," and ones where the concept being illustrated can be instantly understood by the reader. The photographers acknowledge that occasionally the kind of imagery that appears in this catalog is being used in major ads, but that the vast majority of their sales are for a type of imagery that is markedly lacking from this catalog.
Many are skeptical that this particular catalog will do well in the U.S. which still represents 42% of TSI's world market. As one photographer put it, "The designers seem to be trying to produce an award winning coffee table book rather than a catalog that will sell specific images."
Try to get a look at Interpretations, and make your own judgements. But don't assume this is the direction you have to go to produce stock pictures that will sell.
The U.S. photographers are left with a real dilemma. What do they do now? Do they spend time and money producing for the next catalog, and see all that effort go down the drain? Since Marty Loken left they feel their lines of communication to management have broken down. They are unsure whether they can trust the guidance and judgement of their art directors, not because these people are purposely misleading them, but because they are not listened to within the Getty organization.
Getty is likely to have a difficult time rebuilding confidence among those who have been burned. But Getty may feel that they have so many photographers clamoring to produce for them that they can afford to lose the shooters who helped them get where they are today.
Rules for supplying feedback
Feedback: by Stephen Mayes
Response From Tony Stone
24 July 1997
Tony Stone Images prides itself on the partnership offered to photographers, and dozens of Creative staff around the world work closely with contributors to deliver the very best stock imagery to our clients. The successful launch of the new Interpretations catalogue demonstrates that commerce and creativity go hand in hand for the benefit of clients and photographers alike.
Many readers were therefore surprised by the article > Unhappy U.S. Photogs at TSI (Taking Stock, July 1997) and some corrections are necessary to restore balance to the report. Many photographers are extremely happy with the launch of Interpretations which has been produced with our usual creative energy and commercial rigor. The content categories were advertised to all contributors a year before the submission deadline, and they were fulfilled brilliantly by a broad constituency of photographers.
As always, the only criteria for inclusion of work in a Tony Stone Images catalogue is quality and market relevance, and the catalogue selection team worked impartially to address the needs of our increasingly sophisticated market. All Tony Stone Images photographers can be confident that our lightboxes are truly democratic and the imagery is selected by quality and not by privilege. For the record it should be noted that well over 50% of the selected images are by North American photographers signed to our Los Angeles and Seattle offices.
The article in July's "Taking Stock" is absolutely wrong in its assertion that no Los Angeles representative was invited to catalogue selection, and one of our most experienced Art Directors, Alex Bortkiewicz was present throughout. The selection team also included a permanent representative from the Seattle Creative team as well as the London, Paris and Munich Creative centers. We went a step further by circulating the page layouts to North American Sales and Creative departments for approval before going to print: no images were accepted that were felt to be "not quite up to par."
The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and our North American clients have already demonstrated a strong appetite for the new catalogue. The overall style of the images in Interpretations is very much in sync with the mainstream North American markets, and our contributors will enjoy the benefits of this and many more Tony Stone Images catalogues over the coming months.
Meanwhile the communication channels are open straight to the Getty management and my colleagues and I regularly exchange views and information with contributors around the world. The opinions expressed in July's "Taking Stock" are not typical of the wider photographic constituency that we represent.
Yours in the spirit of encouraging communication among photographers.
Group Creative Director