by Myrna Masucci
The Image Bank: New York, 1987
Reviewed by Annebella Pollen

As "the ultimate visual tool for the creative person", The Stock Photography Source Book represented "the most saleable stock images available anywhere" in 1987. 3,904 photographs compiled from four years of "outstandingly successful" catalogues were distilled from the 3 million-strong holdings of The Image Bank, "the largest and most successful” stock agency in the world".

Established in 1974 as a means of selling photographers’ work to the advertising industry under a single corporation, The Image Bank cashed in on the expanding need for a ready repository of visual material for license. Bypassing bespoke photography by assignment, they instead sold "existing photographs" by "photography greats". By the time the weighty volume launched, they boasted 37 offices worldwide.

The Stock Photography Source Book was a visual hypermarket from which advertising designers could browse numbered photographs in 4 x 6 cm previews. Each colour-coded category – People, Sports, Scenics, Travel, Industry and Abstracts / Special Effects – finished with a lined shopping list. The Source Book was also a glossy manual in its own right. For "the photographer, whether he is professional or a serious amateur" it was "an invaluable guide for generating the stock image that will sell".

What photographs, then, represented the world’s most saleable models in the mid-1980s? Their shared characteristic is sharp and loud saturated colour, especially a primary palette of reds and yellows seen in the bright clothes of People and the ubiquitous sunsets of Scenics. A relentless optimism dominates: balloons are raised and lovers are lifted aloft. Studious concentration for businessmen at work and sultry stares from young women in flimsy attire extend the moods a little. Travel scenes are picture postcard perfect and landscapes are all spectacular: crashing waves, curving bays, rugged mountains and stunning skies. In short, clichés abound.

Paul Frosh has written brilliantly of the visual content industry in his 2003 book, The Image Factory. He described how stock photography boomed – The Image Bank’s business, for example, tripled in the 1980s – built on feel-good visuals to suit multiple uses from greetings cards to corporate publications. In aiming for the generic, photographers provided enough detail to keep the subject comprehensible – in occupations, for example, scientists hold test tubes and construction workers don hard hats – but photographs needed to be broadly adaptable to carry a range of concepts and prove long-lasting.

More than 30 years on, however, and the generic looks highly specific. Like Trevor Paglen’s 2019-20 Barbican installation, From ‘Apple’ to ‘Anomaly’, comprising 30,000 photographs from the ImageNet dataset for artificial intelligence training, simple description betrays value judgement. Categories that seem neutral are highly invested. People are universally heterosexual, exclusively able-bodied and persistently white. Women have a capacious nude section; men have none. Travel reproduces similar norms. Britain is Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, Oxford Street and Harrods; Stonehenge is the only location outside the capital. For a global organisation across five continents, there is a very particular point of view: India is represented by five views of the Taj Mahal. Industry is mostly lucrative – gold bars and diamonds feature – and large scale, with birds-eye views of agribusiness and massed shipping containers.

The most interesting section is Abstracts / Special Effects. These try to break expectations but their experimentation is a period vision, uniting a planetary consciousness of horizons, grids and deep space with bulky VDUs and neon graphics redolent of The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy. The future looks remarkably like an electropop record sleeve, perhaps because Pete Turner was one of the main producers. The Stock Photography Source Book authenticated quality by including photographers’ names alongside their photographs but the list of "greats" has also dated. Some are forgotten or latterly fell from grace. David Hamilton’s soft-focus pre-pubescent girls look different since he was accused of child abuse. Others – Joel Meyerowitz, particularly – have established reputations for artistic innovation that exceed the need to sell sunsets-to-order.

The Stock Photography Source Book offered a once-substantial sample of piped photographic product at the former cutting edge of the image industry. Lingering over individual images on its printed pages now feels quaint. In 1999, with 10 million photographs, The Image Bank was bought by Getty for $183 million. These numbers seem modest in the context of a company that now owns 200 million images worth $3 billion. 3,904 images from 1987 represent photographic plankton long ago consumed by ever-expanding predators. New volumes and new norms proliferate in their place.

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