I know that stock photography has been dying since the late 1990s but I wonder if AI is ringing the final toll of its existence. Here’s a spoiler alert! I do!
In 1999 I was employed to travel the world and give talks on the future of stock. My thought process was that in a coming digital world where everyone would have access to making images of technical quality, stock would have to be more creative and aspirational to survive. This was not a message that was universally accepted or agreed with, particularly in the US. In the States I met photographers who had devoted their lives to stock making big money just as they had done for years. There was a simple formula that many of them were following. Each Summer they would take a Winnebago and their families on a road trip and make photographs along the way. Lifestyle images that were dictated by a list of ‘wants’ and ‘needs’ supplied by the stock agency. When they got home they would process the film, label it and send it off. They would then wait for the monthly cheques to roll in.
Digital photography saw this formula fail. It was too slow for a rapidly changing digital world and piles of analogue images were too expensive to digitise. Agencies started to accept images from anyone who had a camera they considered ‘professional’ and the old school stock photographers found their market swamped by newcomers keen to ‘make a buck’. The problem was that ‘a buck’ was all they started making.
An over supply of images saw a drop in sales revenue and many photographers walked away from supplying stock. When I say stock what I am referring to is generic imagery used to illustrate a multitude of articles, and provide visual content for companies from accountants to plumbers. I am not talking about syndication here. Stock photography has always been a numbers game, the more you submit the more chance you have of getting lucky and making a sale. The issue is that if everyone plays the same hand there is less chance that your hand will take the pot.
For years the best selling stock image was of two peoples hands meeting and clasping. A sign of connection, trust and collaboration. “Find a new way of photographing that and you will make a fortune!” I was once told. I think I may now have that formula.
There is much talk about how AI based image making is the end of photography, that the truth is under attack and once out of the bag those images may never be placed back in. I cannot see any argument against the latter assertions but the first cannot be true from my perspective. I am old enough to remember the same arguments being made concerning the post-production powers of Photoshop. Issues did and will occur but they can be addressed.
Photography competitions re-wrote their entry conditions and created new categories to accept, absorb and explain images that had been post-produced. In turn such images became easy to recognise and such a manipulation become an art form in-and-of-itself. I expect the same to be true of AI generated images.
Photographs will still be made of people, places and objects that need to be accurately and faithfully recorded. Photographers will still be commissioned to do this. However, I do believe that stock photography will be replaced or at least impacted by AI created images that fulfil generic client needs. This may be a fashion, a trend, or a style for a while, it may become an aspect of stock photography that some clients are drawn to alongside ‘pure’ photography. Or it may go the way of HDR images, and remain a quick sugary fix based on technology that appeals to some happy to engage with obviously created digital art.
The AI conversation is ongoing within all aspects of our life and its affect and effect on our lives is both obvious and inevitable. It is therefore no surprise that we are talking about its impact on photography. However, there are some practices that cannot be taken over, at least so it seems at the time of writing this. I am not aware of an AI hairdresser, or an AI tradesmen who can climb under my bath to fix a leaking pipe, or an AI farmer that can deliver a baby lamb or an AI photographer who can travel to a location, meet someone, engage in conversation, identify and make a series of successful photographs of that person, edit (in its correct sense to choose the strongest images) the images and deliver them to a client.
Stock requires none of this. An agency ‘wants’ list and the ability to navigate an AI image making platform is all that is required. So what does this mean for stock agencies? Well, if its easy enough to do, just as companies now use website templates to create their own websites there is nothing to suggest that they will not be able to make their own images, they will not need to buy them from a traditional stock agency. The generic will be easy, however just like in 1999 the creative and the aspirational will still be required by those clients looking to stand out from the crowd, and that is where the photographer steps in. AI can easily meet the client need if that need is a visual answer to a generic problem or a cheap fix. Two hands meeting? Sure, not a problem, a group of happy office workers, of course we can do that, a smiling child reaching out to the sun, no problem with that either. This is classic stock and it will be replaced. However, classic stock is not all photography and just like a haircut a ‘pure’ photograph requires a photographer to make it. A living breathing photographer.
Dr. Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018 www.donotbendfilm.com. He is the presenter of the A Photographic Life and In Search of Bill Jay podcasts.
© Grant Scott 2023