As Philip K. Dick once famously did not say, ‘Do stock photo people dream of watermarked sheep?’ In other not-quite-said words: do their photogenic smiles hide tears? Do stock photo people have feelings, too?
My own unplanned empathy for the stock photo model came after the discovery that I, in fact, am one. Type ‘Girl doing exams’, ‘Girl doing GCSES’ or even ‘Depressed sad girl doing GCSE exam’ into Google Images, and soon enough you’ll find me—doing my GCSE exams.
Forced memory blanks of teenage cringes aside, I can admit that I do remember this photograph being taken. It was after a particularly gruelling few hours of tests, at which point most students were allowed to leave the room that I was instead chosen to stay behind. I suppose I must have signed something, but I don’t really remember doing so. Besides, as a 15 year old, shouldn’t my parents have been asked about this? In the post-exam stress of it all, I can’t really remember what went on here. The uptight principal from Daria comes to mind, though: she of the greater concern for bringing profit and exposure to ‘Lawndale High’, than for the welfare of her students. [1. Here’s a choice quote: “Voluntary urinalysis of all students will be instituted. Sign up now and receive a free fanny pack.”]
Subsequent to this photograph being taken, my emo(-tional) bangs have been chopped and my posture has improved. Alongside these events, said photograph has also popped up in the national press every now and then: accompanying school league tables, reports of falling grades, or the latest Michael Gove educational blunder. It is only more recently that the sheer multiplicity of my image has become evident to me in all its schoolgirl glory. When the image file is searched on Google, there are hundreds of instances of its use, across articles in several languages and in many and various contexts. My mug represents poor students, Korean students, even students who write bad poetry (“My answers are wierd/ And doubts are to be cleared…(sic.)”). Even for me — she of the Twitter, the Facebook, and the Blogging — this online presence was a strange sensation. This was unsettling.
So — in the manner of “Moping Female Journalist drinking Coffee and typing delicately on their Macbook in style of Carrie Bradshaw” [2. Clearly, stock photo stardom beckons.] — I got to thinking. I got to thinking about why this was so weird, and, sure enough, soon found others who consider the stock photo an equally strange cultural artefact, whether they accidentally find themselves the subject of one, or not. As artists increasingly find their practice treading a line between artistic and commercial relevance, some have found an exploration of the murky world of the stock photo industry a dynamic space in which to combine and contrast both. Video artist Andrew Norman Wilson has recently been working in the medium of stock footage. The project, entitled ‘Stock Fantasy Ventures’, produces stock photo and video clips that are released on stock media marketplaces such as Getty Images, whilst simultaneously being showcased alongside traditional artwork in galleries and arts journalism.
Wilson’s aim is to both candidly and cryptically reflect the economic downturn, thus subverting the mechanics of the industry and opening up alternative interpretations of its cultural stereotypes. The titles of his multi-channel pieces are as important as their content. Titles stay true to the itemised nature of stock photo search engines, whilst also subverting them through an overlong preoccupation with the mundane. ‘Moping drunk CEO on a thick fur rug wearing unbuttoned Theory dress slacks and wrapped in a KLM airplane blanket receives a call from HSBC Bank and gradually begins to sob while taking their automated customer satisfaction survey’ one piece reads. It is a miniature soap opera: as tragic as it is comic.
And yes, stock photos (not least my own) are funny. Whilst the stock photos we see in the press every day will elicit no reaction, once taken out of context — such as Wilson’s resituating of his stock imagery into the art world — they become both “funny ha-ha” and, well, “funny weird”. By choosing to place his artwork for sale on genuine stock image vendors, Wilson creates meaning out of its direct encounter with other, more traditional, stock media. His work thus directly engages with the raison d’être of the stock image: the reflection and reproduction of stereotypes.
The production does not maketh the stock image, but rather, its reproduction. These are images with universal appeal; their models have nothing to hide. The titles of the most popular images ever sold on one such site, Shutterstock, read thus: “Close-up of business people shaking hands over a deal”, “Business group meeting http://instapax.com of five business people working together with a diverse work group” and “Face of beautiful woman on the background of business people.” Oh, and a rock climber – presumably performing some metaphorical feat of big business. Back to that “Face of beautiful woman”, then, and stock imagery of women becomes a particularly vivid reflection of age-old gender stereotypes. Feminist blog the Vagenda produces entertaining surveys of such stereotypes: “Women looking remorseful after sexual encounters”, “Women looking disgruntled whilst their partners look at porn” and, of course, “Feminism” as defined by stock photo websites. [3. Here, here and here.] The latter bevy of moustachioed and/or mid-shave women was quite rightly nominated a “cluster fuck of images”.
Stock photos highlight and strengthen our sexual, racial and ethical labels at the instant, visual layer, and the resultant clusterfuck is tragicomic. I’ve known for a while that an image of me doing my exams is floating around cyberspace. On one level, this shouldn’t feel different to any of my online “second selves”: the Twitter avatars and profile pictures that make up my self-appointed digital dualism (shout out Mr. Vincent). Its forced reproduction across hundreds of different contexts, however, is the making of its ‘stock’ – the creation of a stereotype that is completely out of my control. The repetition of the image, across virtual space, inscribes its meaning. I am a laughing-stock.
But, much like Henri Bergson, even I can see the funny side. For him, the comic spirit ‘conjures up, in its dreams, visions that are at once accepted and understood by the whole of a social group’.
Can it then fail to throw light for us on the way that human imagination works, and more particularly [the] social, collective, and popular imagination? Begotten of real life and akin to art, should it not also have something of its own to tell us about art and life? [4. Henri Bergson, Laughter. An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, Chapter 1]
Bergson, we might suppose, would have found the sense of humour in stock photo culture. In his series of essays on laughter, he admits that, whilst to define a unique method of the comic is impossible, there is nevertheless a central cause: a mechanism applied to life. His central motif of a man tripping over (Wotcha! Banana-peel ahoy! &tc.) is one of laughter caused by an accidental situation. It signifies the presence of rigidity in life’s normally perpetual, flexible movement. Similarly, an inflexibility of the mind, as well as of the body, is a cause for the comic: Laurel and Hardy, Dumb and Dumber, Beavis and Butthead. Repetition, then, is the major channel of the comical; in repetition, we find the prime example of the crust of the mechanical placed upon the living. [5. Chicago School of Media Theory Keywords, ‘repetition’ (as paraphrased from Henri Bergson’s definition] The stock photo, ‘begotten of real life and akin to art’, performs its assumed reproduction of stereotypes, as repeated across various contexts, and without ever being supplied a new context to call its own. Ha-ha, indeed.
Another notion of Bergson’s, of laughter as a form of punishment, is tempting to reassign to my own sorry stock-photo situation. My tragicomic flaw was taking the exam in the first place, and for this I must be punished. But I won’t be too down on myself (sorry, Henri). If laughter really were supposed to force a better sociability onto the comic figure — punishing him for his stiffness and resituating him into approved society — then the poker-faced stock photo person forms a rigid riposte to those who choose to laugh at him. Because the stock photo person, both funny and unchanging, is sociability itself: we made him in our likeness.
(The one saving grace after a remorseful trawl through my photo-documented past, sobbing over those lost millions and pondering the insurmountable task of erasing a stubborn stock photo presence of nearly a decade? A hilarious, delicious salad.)