Improbable Laughter: Stock Imagery as Genre

Stock photography isn’t art art.

Stock is commercial art – it’s utilitarian – it’s created to be used not simply admired.

It’s an answer to a question the photographer is hoping will be asked.

Art can exist purely on its own terms. The best art may be involved in a dialogue with the real world, with the audience, with expectations, with photography itself – but it stands on its own two feet. It may gain weight from context, the heavy black frame on the whitewashed wall of a gallery or the tastefully designed page of a book, but it can still succeed without either.

But stock is only really successful when its been used.

It’s a popularity contest – and just as with people there are different strategies to success, a successful image might aim to please as many people as possible but in doing so sacrifice certain styles or subjects that might limit its appeal, or it may target a smaller group of users knowing there will be less competition.

However, if at the end of the day its left on the shelf, it has failed as stock. It could maybe try its hand on the gallery wall instead – but the paying public have

It has its cliches. As several blogs have pointed out, it seems populated with abnormally attractive, well groomed individuals becoming improbably ecstatic at the most trivial of daily tasks, say eating a bowl of generic breakfast cereal or shaving. It’s as if their laughter is the first sign of mania brought on by the pressure of living their perfectly lit, photoshopped existence. Its my suspicion that in most cases the next frames on the memory card show the laughter getting ever more hysterical before the final shot has the model face down in the cereal bowl, sobbing uncontrollably into the corn style flakes.

Stocks very stockiness has been used by designers in a knowing way. Peter Saville used stock imagery for the New Order’s ‘Republic’ album and related singles. Blur did the same for ‘Parklife’ and ‘The Great Escape’ – in the Eighties Duran Duran’s video for Rio, with the band and accompanying models on a yacht crossing tropical sea, came to symbolise glamour and aspiration for that decade, Blur’s ‘The Great Escape’ cover with its speedboat dripped with sarcasm (the back cover [1], with the band in mock businessman mode was a nice touch too – both a play on stock’s business imagery cliches and, perhaps, a nod to Heaven 17’s ‘Penthouse & Pavement’ (it always made me think of Kraftwerk’s pre-redesign ‘Trans-Europe Express’ too. [1] The future likes to arrive wearing suits [1] [2] [3] )


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