In a recent podcast Brookes Jenson, editor of Lenswork—the art photography magazine, discussed his analysis of submissions to its photo-art book project which showed that the most popular subject, by far, were of mannequins and abandoned places. He asked whether photographers were generally shy, or I would ask lazy or unimaginative? It got me wondering if similar was true of stock photography.
I chose the sort of subject that come up often in found images on Alamy. Searching on generic terms such as "travel", "Britain" or "France" on Alamy it would appear that only between 5-20% of images on the first 500-1000 pictures have people with whom there appears to be some engagement by the photographer, and that is being very generous on that interpretation. Even fewer appear to be in places or of subjects that would have required permission to photograph. While not a rigorous study it does seem to reflect similar findings to those found by Brookes Jenson.
The number of "easy" subjects has also just got smaller, at least in the UK. Designers of three-dimensional items such as furniture including street furniture, mass-produced ceramics, glassware, jewellery, vehicles now have protection for the designer's lifetime plus 70 years even for depiction in two-dimensions. The exceptions are where the use is incidental, for example a street bench in a general street scene or where the use is for criticism or review. So all those studio shots of mass-produced items will need permission for reproduction as will many of those architectural and other details so loved by photographers. Arguably it should include advertising images of them for sale, after all, that is reproduction or publication.
Before anyone thinks I am simply being critical of others this article comes out of challenging my own past approach to stock photography. I will acknowledge that my own Alamy portfolio images shows me to be at the bottom end of that range of relying on "easy" subjects that neither have engagement with the subjects or have needed permission. Some are of course taken where I was accredited so I had sought and gained permission. Although many others do feature people they were taken in a news or street photography context where they are engaged in doing other things and I did not, usually, need to seek permission. It might of course explain why my stock photography sales have not been doing very well; too much like so many other portfolios.
The answer to the question in the title in my case at least is all three. I am sometimes shy of engaging with people, especially with my camera. Oft times it is laziness because I am not prepared to go out of my way to seek permission and many times I just do not give it enough thought, I am unimaginative. Much of the time I just go out and take whatever photographs come to mind, shoot what I see with no clear purpose or direction. I waste a lot of time even if I try to call it "working", it is certainly not "working smart".
So the biggest reason I am not successful is probably because I do not plan well enough or do enough to make my work different, I tend to not really think through what I am trying to achieve; I just go out and take pictures. I am working on changing that approach, to be more professional and to think through what I am trying to achieve. But it is no wonder my sales have been in steady decline—I have become part of the problem, part of the "crowd" even if I do not actually give my work away.
It is my belief that a more considered approach will produce results that should stand apart from the crowd of easy images. Seeking permission whether it is of an individual or to gain access to and event or location will produce pictures that very few other photographers will have available. Many stock photographers complain about crowd sourced images when, in reality, theirs's are no different except they may in some cases be technically better and they do not give them away (but may allow them to be sold for pennies). We are taking pictures that anyone, surely that constitutes the "crowd", could and have taken? For me at least I recognise that I need, and want, to take pictures that are my own vision not the same as everyone else's. I became a photographer because I thought I had something different to say but I have slipped into an easy (yes lazy), platitudinous approach just like the "crowd"; it is time to step up and do the hard miles, to work professionally, that success requires.
I am not denying that stock and documentary photography is a difficult way of making a living. But many of us work in a way that ensures we do not make a viable living. We have working practices that have no real prospect of making an adequate return either financially or for personal satisfaction. I hope to change that and at least raise my self-esteem as a photographer. It is time for doing the hard miles, the desk work, that might just make my photography more personally rewarding. My aim is to separate myself from the "crowd" that I have allowed to engulf me.
I will have more to say on these matters in future as I discover my true path.
Brooks Jenson, Lenswork Podcast: "Mannequins and abandoned places", 21 July 2016 (accessed 29 July 2016) Subscription required.
Intellectual Property Office, Repeal of section 52, Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 Guidance (accessed 2 August 2016)_