The cult of image is caught somewhere between fine art and the bottom line. On one hand, the demand for images in print, broadcast and online ventures continues to increase. On the other, some cautious critics insist our culture's already overly saturated with visuals, risking apathy among viewers. In a recent ABC News report, Getty Images public relations director Laurie McEachron admitted, "Culturally, as a society, we're used to seeing more images; we want more visual impact." But in asking whether more is too much, Stephen Mayes, CEO of Photonica, a New York City-based stock photography agency, says the future of image placement does not revolve around quantity. He believes the overall quality of today's images is richer than ever before, with an increased awareness about minority representation, digital innovations and cross-over artists as catalysts of style.
In the photography industry, stock images have long been a well-tapped alternative to custom photography. In less than two decades, the industry has gone from being custom-driven to stock-managed, causing photographers to alter how they do business and inspiring agencies and publishers to approach the industry differently, as well. Now, it's estimated that nearly 80 percent of all images used in advertising comes from agencies rather than freelanced photographers. The move is presumably driven by savings and variety.
Several years ago when Mayes evaluated the industry, he noticed a laissez-fair attitude towards imagery. "People wanted the basics," he says. "But in general, over the last ten years, the viewing public has become more imaginative. They're as concerned with emotional impact as they are the message." Not only is Mayes confident that the public is becoming more receptive to metaphor within the advertising and publishing markets, but he says that the status quo for how images are purchased and used has similarly evolved. He attributes the fluidity to a cross-over of diverse market places.
Mayes explains that photographers who once categorized themselves as either exclusively commercial or fine artists are now juggling both titles respectively. At Photonica, popular contributors include Elinor Carucci and Kamil Vojnar, fine artists who have made careers within the gallery circuit long before ever venturing into commercial photography. By reaching wider user pools, Mayes believes fine art character is achieved commercially. Style once reserved for the art-going public can now be seen more popularly on book covers, in dot-com ads and in periodicals throughout the world. "The market," he continues, "is much more receptive to imagination." As a result, the agencies and publishers serving the market are paying closer attention to aesthetic shifts, especially about how they relate to production and the growing need for immediate buying power.
Innovation on behalf of artisans and consumers has also nurtured a digital awareness that's having a heady impact on both publishing and advertising sectors. At Photonica, Mayes admits that while photographers still tend to submit their works in print, he has noticed a far greater demand for digital format retrieval among his client base, which consists of mainly advertisers, designers and editorial art directors for book and magazine publishers. To appease clients who need high-resolution images fast, Photonica, like many agencies, deals in both digital and analog formats.
Mayes explains that a client wishing to order an image from any of the agency's offices in New York, San Francisco, London or Tokyo headquarters can do so by way of a 70 mm. transparency, 48 MB TIFF or 10 MB JPG. The scanning and prepress conversion for clients, as well as for the company's own lush tri-annual catalogs, are handled in Tokyo, where Photonica has set up a digital laboratory. "We've always prided ourselves on being ahead of the curve," notes Mayes. As a result, he adds, "Some of our competitors have become more adventurous."
Today, an art director from anywhere in the world may browse images online, as compared to the old "hunt and pick" model, wherein that same art director (provided he/she resided in a major metropolitan enclave) would be required to visit a local stock art agency, pour over transparencies or catalogs and manually make selections that would have to be sent to a prepress house for scanning—all at additional cost and time. Now that searches can be conducted directly from an art director's desktop, high-resolution images are delivered faster via e-mail. At Photonica, Mayes has noticed a decisive East and West Coast shift towards utilizing this digital terrain, whereas the midwest still leads in lingering analog demand. Mayes attributes Photonica's catalog success to traditionalists within what the ASMP estimates is a $14 billion-a-year business.
and Verizon, the digital shift hasn't been the only cultural conversion. Broader attention is also being paid to minority subjects, says Mayes. Among the aforementioned clients, there's growing demand for greater ethnic and sexual awareness, specifically utilizing African-American, Hispanic and gay and lesbian themes. Mayes notes that Photonica has beefed-up its stock to appease this burgeoning interest, having consistently invested in highly creative images within the U.S. niche for more than 10 years. He says, "Boundaries have merged and I'm anticipating more of the same. I'd say emotional resonance in a good photograph is inescapable." As for the threat of image fatigue, he's skeptical. "We're getting smarter," champions Mayes. "It's liberation of the picture."
-Natalie Hope McDonald
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