Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Digital Image Banks

Historical photographic collections in archives, libraries, and museums have been influenced by the two billion dollar a year global stock photography industry. The images, used in marketing, advertising, editorials, multimedia products, and websites, are filed at an agency that negotiates licensing fees on the photographer’s behalf in exchange for a percentage, or in some cases owns the images outright. Pricing is determined by size of audience or readership, how long the image is to be used, country or region where the images will be used, and whether royalties are due to the image creator or owner. The images are generic and decontextualized with flat, rich color and blank backgrounds, acting as “the wallpaper of consumer culture” (Frosh 2003, 1). Image banks “distort the nature of the imagery, treating them as if photography were a kind of universal Esperanto” (Ritchen 1999, 90). Cartier-Bresson notes that an image bank “will never match the work of an author. On one side is a machine: on the other is a living and sensitive being” (Dorfman 2002, 60).

Getty Images and Corbis, the two largest digital image banks, represent 70% of the images used in advertising and marketing (Frosh 2003). Getty Images was co-founded by Jonathan Klein and Mark Getty, grandson of oil tycoon J. Paul Getty. Corbis is owned by Microsoft founder Bill Gates. In some countries, Getty’s 25% market share would be considered illegal (Machin 2004). Machin (2004) writes that stock photography companies are changing visual perceptions of “the photograph as witness, as record of reality, to one which emphasizes photography as a symbolic system and the photograph as an element of layout design, rather than as an image which can stand on its own” (319). He continues:
We should be concerned about the effect of this increasingly stylized and predictable world on audience expectations of what the visual representation of the world should look like. We should be concerned about the fact that we no longer flinch when we see a posed, processed, stylized, colour-enhanced, National Geographic image of a woman and child taken from Getty and placed on a page in The Guardian for a documentary feature on the Kashmir conflict (335).
More worrisome for information professionals is the fact that image banks have also acquired historic photographic archives. Getty contains the Eastman Kodak Image Bank, the Hulton Picture archives, and the National Geographic image collection, among others (Ramamurthy 2009). Corbis absorbed the Sigmund Freud archives and the photo archives of UPI, the defunct news wire service (Aalto 2008; Dorfman 2002). It also bought the Bettmann Archive in 1995, which contains more than 16 million photographs, one of the world’s largest private depository of images. Batchen (2001) notes that many of the images owned by Corbis are historically significant:
Remember Malcolm X pointing out over his crowd of listeners, the airship Hindenburg exploding in the New Jersey sky, that naked Vietnamese child running toward us after being burned by napalm, Churchill flashing his V-for-victory sign, Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother, Patty Hearst posing with her gun in front of the Symbionese Liberation Army banner, LBJ being sworn into office aboard Air Force One beside a blood-spattering Jackie? Corbis offers to lease us electronic versions of them all. It offers to sell us, in other words, the ability to reproduce our memories of our own culture, and therefore of ourselves (150).
Corbis has digitized only the previously top best-selling 225,000 images. The rest are stored in an Iron Mountain underground cold storage facility, inaccessible to researchers. Lister (2009) notes that, “In these processes of acquisition and selection a kind of digital ‘editing of history’ is at stake” (344). By neither digitizing images nor making them accessible for research, scholars are deprived from the cultural heritage of visual records.

Works Cited

Aalto, B. (2008). Industry in transition. Applied Arts 23(2), 10.

Batchen, G. (2001). Each wild idea: Writing, photography, history. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Dorfman, J. (July/August 2002). Digital dangers: The new forces that threaten photojournalism. Columbia Journalism Review 60-63.

Frosh, P. (2003). The image factory: Consumer culture, photography and the visual content industry. New York: Berg.

Lister, M. (2009). Photography in the age of electronic imaging. In L. Wells (Ed.), Photography: A critical introduction. (pp. 311-344). London: Routledge.

Machin, D. (2004). Building the world’s visual language: The increasing global importance of image banks in corporate media. Visual Communication 3(3), 316-336.

Ramamurthy, A. (2009). Spectacles and illusions: Photography and commodity culture. In L. Wells (Ed.), Photography: A critical introduction. (pp. 205-256). London: Routledge.

Ritchen, F. (1999). In our own image: The coming revolution in photography. New York: Aperture.

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