Tag Archives: art

A very brief history of stock photography: from fake studio models to authentic backyard scenes

When a brand chooses a stock photograph to represent their desired public image, they’re faced with a “style” problem. The brilliant artist Chuck Close summarized the problem of photographic style like this:

“Photography is the easiest medium with which to be merely competent. Almost anybody can be competent. It’s the hardest medium in which to have some sort of personal vision and to have a signature style.”

Having a signature style is the essence of branding. When a marketing department develops creative ads for their brand, they want to distill their style into an image, while showing off the best qualities of their products or services.

Companies rely on stock photography to shape their image, because as Close pointed out, finding a signature style with photography is difficult. Creative stock photographs are shot by freelance artists and can be bought from online agencies like Getty, Alamy, Shutterstock and more.

In the early days of digital stock photography, the aesthetic of the pictures was quite different than it is today. Take a look at this historical capture of the Getty Creative Images website from July, 2004 (via archive.org)

An example of old stock photography - Getty Images homepage in 2004.

What stands out about this picture? It doesn’t seem very realistic, does it? The model is placed on a pure white background under studio lighting, she’s looking at the camera, holding a pose, her hair and makeup are professionally styled. Not exactly the kind of scene the average consumer comes across in their daily life.

This type of staged, made-up picture is all to familiar. From around the 1980’s until fairly recently, it was common for businesses to use terrible pictures of this style. They showed random people dressed up in suits and ties, pointing at laptops together or high-fiving. Occasionally they tried more conceptual ideas and fell flat, like this example:

a really terrible stock photograph of a guy holding a corndog

Today, stock photographs of people are quite different. Here’s a look at the modern Getty Creative Images website, as it is in February 2018:

The Getty Creative Images page in 2018.

The first difference you might notice is how much more natural the people appear. They are photographed outdoors, in daylight, with a real landscape behind them. They don’t look like professional models, they look like your friends & family. They’re doing things people do in their day-to-day lives: chewing gum, tossing a snowball, and gazing up at the sky.

Why has the style of creative stock imagery changed so much?

Between 2005 and 2007, two things had a major impact on photography: social websites like Flickr.com, and the Apple iPhone. The iPhone’s contribution was saturating the world with more pictures than had ever been taken before. Within a few years, the iPhone was the most popular camera on the planet. Flickr’s effect was to make photography more democratic. Everyone who could take a picture could also instantly share it with the whole world.

The result of these paradigm shifts was a move in the stock photography industry towards what editors, photographers, and buyers now recognize as conceptual realism.

In their 2018 Trends report, the editors of Getty Images highlighted this important idea:

“Attainability and relatability are key when connecting with today’s consumer, with authentic lifestyle storytelling the main vehicle. As the dance of technology and artistry continues, we will see a continued evolution of conceptual ideas merged with realism”

Because Flickr and the iPhone made taking and sharing photographs so much easier, the cultural visual vocabulary has changed drastically – but not everyone has caught up yet.

Here is an example of two modern brands competing in the same industry. One of them has adapted to the changes in what consumers expect from creative imagery, and the other is still working on it – Ace Hotel and Hilton Worldwide.

stock photography as seen on the Ace Hotels website

In the Ace Hotel website, the imagery appears attainable & relatable. In Chicago, people are jumping in a lake, and in Portland, bicycling across a bridge – casual, easy activities. A viewer might recognize the use of popular photo filters from Instagram, and the artistic lens flares in the Palm Springs picture.

stock photography seen on Hilton Hotel website

The Hilton Hotels website is speaking a very different visual language, that calls back to a more contrived aesthetic. Razor sharp focus, and crystal clear blue color on a perfect, calm ocean. This is an image of the “ideal life” that Hilton wants their brand to represent. It looks like paradise, but does it elicit emotion? Is it authentic?

What does authenticity look like in a stock photograph?

Even when a brand is striving to represent a visual wonderland like a beautiful beach, authenticity in the image is key to connecting with the audience. Getty Images is bursting with available stock photography that could make the Hilton beach scene more relatable and attainable.

Here are two examples where a different perspective – the beach as seen by someone sitting on it, or by a group of friends playing a game – can change the values of what the brand is offering.

A realistic stock photo of a beautiful beach

Example of authentic stock photography - a group of people playing on a beach

These images do a better job capturing what is being recognized as the key to successful brand images: “connecting with today’s consumer with authentic lifestyle storytelling.”

While these photos use the visual vocabulary of authenticity, the concept itself can still be ambiguous. Already some photographers have found that “authenticity” isn’t difficult to artificially create. On social platforms like Instagram, the #liveauthentic hashtag has become so popular that its meaning can be lost entirely. A Bloomberg reporter used fabricated “lifestyle” images of himself to gain a following and capitalize on his purchased popularity in an exposé on the subject.

When brands use stock photography to represent themselves, it’s important to keep up with visual trends, but there is a delicate balance between blindly jumping on a bandwagon and finding images that truly represent their values.



*ed. note – this post was written for a digital marketing class at the Georgetown University S.C.S. 


I read Austin Kleon’s book “Show Your Work!” last week.

It presents an idea that seems pretty basic on the surface, but is actually pretty challenging: “You can’t find your voice without using it.”

According to Kleon, creative people have to show what they’re doing for it to be meaningful. Showing the work is as important as doing it.

I used to have a good habit of doing that with this blog. Until a few years ago, I was posting regularly, and it seemed like people other than my Mom were actually reading it. (Thanks for reading, Mom!) Things I wrote about here turned into the things I talked about with people out in the world.

Then life caught up. I started grad school. I got engaged. We got a dog, moved, got married, bought a house, and moved again.

Amidst all that, I also changed jobs – and in doing so, had to significantly refocus my energy on learning a new organization and becoming a useful part of it.

Some people use their work experiences as material to write about, but I’ve never thought of this blog as connected to my professional life. In my mind, blogging is separate, a kind of mental ‘safe space’ where the drudgery of work can’t encroach, where I can let my creative brain run free without any requirements or deadlines or connection to the stuff that pays the bills.

Reading Kleon’s book had me thinking about that differently.

A few months ago, my wife and I had an awesome night out – we went to see Bonobo in concert. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you might remember that I interviewed Jack Baker, Bonobo’s drummer, almost three years ago. (That interview continues to be, by far, the most read thing I’ve ever posted here.) After their amazing show, we hung out with Jack and the group for a little while. I was embarrassed when Jack and some of his bandmates asked about what I’ve been writing lately – and I had nothing to say.

To me, Bonobo et al. are artists who are right up there where Michael Jordan was when I was a kid – legendary and truly inspirational. They make the world a better place by doing something beautiful that they love (#LifeGoals.) When they seemed to be genuinely curious about what I’ve been writing, it hit me like a brick – I have not been writing or doing anything else creative lately, and that’s a huge missed opportunity when people I admire are asking me about it.

Me, Jack, & Wifey

I quickly resolved to get back into a creative routine after that night. Freshly motivated, I’ve been rekindling my interest in art… drawing, trying to learn how to paint, challenging myself to write at least 500 words everyday… and relishing anytime I can spend away from a glowing computer or phone or TV screen. It isn’t easy. Life is busy, and there’s always something to do. But I’ve found when I make the time for it, the rewards of creating something… anything… are abundant.

Getting back to Kleon’s book – I haven’t been showing anything that I’ve been up to. There’s always a voice in the back of my head, whispering… “This isn’t real work. No one needs to see this. This isn’t what you get paid for.”

After reading “Show Your Work,” I’m starting to think that voice might be right… as long as I don’t show what I’m doing, it won’t be real work. No one will want to see it if I don’t have a story to tell about it. If I don’t show it, it will never be something I get paid for.

So… ahem. Fuck that voice.

Here’s a watercolor I’ve been working on. It’s a work in progress. I had fun doing it – it’s the first time I’ve tried anything like this. I started with a photo I took of Circular Quay, in Sydney. I put the image on a lightbox, traced it into a grid, then reproduced the grid on watercolor paper with pencil. I mixed up some paints (without knowing nearly enough about color) and did some work with my poor student quality brushes. Viola! Now I have a painting of Circular Quay to show the world:

Circular Quay. Watercolor in progress.

Circular Quay. Watercolor in progress.

So, that’s that. I’m showing my work, and I hope anyone who finds this enjoys it.

I’ll close with some wisdom from one of my favorite writers, Annie Dillard, who is quoted in “Show Your Work.”

“The impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

Paris par Deux

I last visited Paris in November, 2011. It is a city I admire and my imagination returns to it often. Despite what the terrorists would have us believe, Paris is a city of love – maybe a cliche, but for many, absolute truth.

During my last trip, I walked the city at length. I love the city’s rhythm, and my camera kept finding moments of ‘two’ – two people sharing a small corner of the city, amongst the millions who inhabit it.

At a time when Paris is threatened by separation, division, and ideology that seeks to break apart – I want to pause and reflect on these small moments I last saw there, and the unity they represented – simple frames of two people, sharing togetherness, freedom, and fraternity.

on Walking the World

You can tell a lot about a city by its crosswalks.

In Sydney, the ‘Art and About‘ program installed large banners throughout the city illustrating the slight variations in ‘crosswalk people’ around the globe. The little blinking green man who helps you avoid becoming a traffic accident isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when considering ‘what piece of public art defines where I live?’ But… ‘God is in the details.’

A few examples:

In Warsaw, Poland – the Crossing Man is shattered, wrecked, in pieces. What brought him to such a state of discombobulation? How does he even walk like that? Not only are his limbs disassociated, but his head is monstrously large. It’s as if Warsaw Man lived through WWII and hasn’t finished rebuilding. Perhaps the city is still figuring out how to become whole again.

Warsaw Crossing Picture

In Chicago, USA – the Crossing Man is orange, hunched, an arm limply stretched out in front of him. He carries the weight of the world on his shoulders. His head is not attached to his body. He leans on one leg as though he could crumple at any moment.

Chicago Crossing Man

In Santiago, Chile – this Crossing Man appears frozen, fixed by the shine of his own luminosity, bursting from tiny bulbs within. His pose doesn’t suggest walking, but hesitating. Like a deer (or kangaroo) in headlights, he is frozen. His head floats above his body, his back is set straight. What is Santiago resisting? Who has frightened it?

Santiago Crossing Man

In Paris, France – the Crossing Man can’t be bothered with anything. His head is screwed on tight. His knees aren’t bent, maybe he isn’t walking, but just waiting for someone else to walk for him. Hands in pockets, he is casual, haughty.. and if he is run down by a car… Merde, C’est la Vie, at least he looked like a gentleman as it happened.

Paris Crossing Man

In Stockholm, Sweden – the Crossing Man is defined by his spine, the only visible component of his interior, which radiates through his torso. His legs are much stronger than his wispy arms. His head is small. Stockholm Man is on the move, quickly, perhaps propelled to find his way indoors by the chilly Scandanavian air.

Stockholm Crossing Man

In Boston, USA – do not get in the Crossing Man’s way. He is coming through, his arm cocked back, shoulder ready to charge any obstacle in his path. His outline glows, his inside is dark. He leads a private internal life. With his rear leg straight and his forward leg bent, he is almost crouched, poised to move briskly. Without feet, he makes his way by the power of his middle.

Boston Crossing Man

And finally, in Sydney, Australia – the Crossing Man is an idealist. He appears to have gathered the qualities of other cities, taking the best and leaving the questionable. He has a good neck. His arms evoke action, without aggression. His legs, in long stride, get him along his way in good time, at no risk of injury by overexertion. His salutary proportions make fellow pedestrians want to wave and shout, ‘G’day, Mate!’

Sydney Crossing Man

on the Humanities

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal asked – “Who ruined the humanities?”

The writer’s premise is that students of art and literature are at a disadvantage when studying at a university, where a rigid pedagogy is imposed on works that should be considered personally and at leisure, thus leaving the students with no real benefit upon graduating but having soaked up and learned to reproduce the opinions of professors. The article is rich with opinion and gives an interesting history of literature studies that I didn’t encounter at all during my years of college.

He writes:

Only a knave would applaud the falling-off in the formal study of books that cultivate empathy, curiosity, aesthetic taste and moral refinement. But the academic study of literature leads to nothing of the sort.

Every other academic subject requires specialized knowledge and a mastery of skills and methods. Literature requires only that you be human. It does not have to be taught any more than dreaming has to be taught.

The notion that great literature can help you with reading and thinking clearly is also a chimera.

This socially and economically worthless experience is called transcendence, and you cannot assign a paper, or a grade, or an academic rank, on that.

Some … pitiable non-humanities majors might not be interested in literature at all. They might have to settle for searching for a cure for cancer, and things like that.

My initial reaction to the eloquent but inflammatory statements was defensive – I am a happy, successful young professional working for a company the same publication praises in another section for it’s potential and vision – as I do my ‘real’ job, I’m simultaneously filming documentary video of my workplace for the WSJ to judge in their ‘Startup of the Year’ competition. My studies in English have in no way disturbed my career progress, so the author must be crazy. Majoring in the humanities has had no negative effect on my life.

Sitting with the idea for a few days, I started to form a second opinion. Maybe I was looking at this from the wrong angle. Perhaps it isn’t in the workplace where English majors end up suffering, but away from it. We’re adept at talking our way into meetings and charming executives. Our communication skills and ability to interpret abstract concepts and complex narratives put us at an advantage in any field. Unfortunately, we end up taking  more of our stumbles outside of the office.

It’s in the sappy voicemails, late night texts, and unprovoked confessions where we scramble to retain a happy medium. It’s in personal relationships that the English major’s education might be an albatross. Because we sprinkle a concoction of tender adjectives on every passing glance, because we inscribe every innocent comment with depths of hidden meaning. Because we thought critically about Juliet, Werther, Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina – we might be more sensitive to the same kinds of drama in our own lives.

(I certainly don’t have any data backing up this suggestion – nor have I even asked any other English majors – simply banking on my own experience. Maybe I’m judging harshly.)

My course selections could have had more influence on how to understand ‘love’ than other classes might have – if there were a survey of Grisham and Crichton novels instead of 19th century Romantics, I could have ended up with a shaper ear for legal briefings and popular science as opposed to scandal and heartbreak, so it’s not like I didn’t make the bed myself. C’est la vie.

I don’t agree with the author that the study of literature in a university is completely useless. Many of the works I read I wouldn’t have encountered anywhere else. Ingénu that I am, it wasn’t until I was enrolled in an English program that I cared who Twain, Goethe, or Tolstoy were.

Exposure to works I wouldn’t have otherwise bothered with, and participating in discussions that validated my opinions of and interest in what I was reading, made the courses worthwhile.

I also had the pleasant opportunity to learn a handful of fancy words, and in turn begin using them daily to describe the unbelievably indescribable thing that is life. So there’s that, too.

Figueres, the home of Dali

Figueres is a small city outside Barcelona, and home to the fantastic Salvador Dali. I took the train from Placa Espanya to see the Museu Dali, which included a separate museum housing his jewel collection, and his mausoleum.


The museum consisted of several floors , hallways, and spiraling staircases, with paintings, sketches, furniture, and installations by the artist. The famous “Persistence of Memory” painting is housed at the MOMA in New York, and many other pieces hang in the Dali museum of St. Petersburg, Florida.  Melting clocks can be found all over the place, however, in other paintings and sculptures.

The jewelry designed by Dali is no less extravagant than his oil paintings, and like an Egyptian pharaoh, his mausoleum is surrounded by his priceless art and ornate jewels.


Outside of the Dali museum, Figueres is much like Barcelona, with Catalan influence, but on a smaller scale. On Monday evening, people were rambling down the “Ramblas,” shopping, and filling cafe tables.