Today it may seem that stock photography is a relatively new phenomenon with digital technologies and online storages. But this is just the story of the recent 20 years. Back in the early 20th century, we find the first stock photo companies founded for familiar reasons: to save money on staff photographers. Nevertheless, throughout the whole century, the professional imagery was an exclusive and expensive thing. Everything has changed recently. Let’s see how it happened.

1920-1930s: First Stock Photo Companies. Reasons to Be

The first photo storages were intended to supply newspapers and magazines with illustrations. Print media started to use photos instead of drawings quite early on, but the cost of shoots was pretty high. One of the stock photo pioneers was the American photographer H. Armstrong Roberts. He was the first to get model releases from six people participating in a shooting which brought us the famous “Group in Front of Tri-Motor Airplane”. That was the important step to commercially profitable photographs, and soon stock imagery began to appear as an alternative to staff photographers.

The photo is now available for purchase on Alamy. Not for the price of a picture of a sunset or a cat…

In the beginning, stock photos documented historical events and brought light to the daily life of cities and villages. Some of the best known historical images come from The Bettman Archive, a great collection by Otto Bettman which started with 15 000 photos. Bettman was born in Leipzig in 1903 and collected photographs and prints throughout his life. He was a curator of rare books in the Prussian State Art Library when the Nazis took power in Germany. Fired for being a Jew, Bettman escaped to the USA in 1935, taking the suitcases with thousands of pictures with him. Fortunately, German customs agents were only interested in taking his money for the “leaving the Reich tax”. Two trunks full of prints seemed worthless to them.

The 1930s was the era of photojournalism in all its fertility. With the Bettman Archive, these pictorial treasures seeped into American culture through magazines, newspapers and later – television. The archive, which supplied journalists with pictures for decades, was bought in 1995 by the Bill Gates-owned Corbis Corporation. By that time the collection consisted of 16 million images, “the visual history of everything”. Corbis restricted the access to the greater part of the collection, provoking a negative reaction from a variety of outlets.

1940-1980s: Great Collections

Tony Stone started taking stock photography in 1962. He specialized in mountain sceneries and built a considerable collection shooting Alpine ski lodges. Being popular with chocolate box companies, he sold multiple copies of the transparencies to different businesses. His Tony Stone Images company was the first to work on the rights managed business model. This enabled him to sell a single image to multiple customers and obliged them to report about their purposes in using photos. Similar to the Bettman Archive, his collection was acquired by stock giant Getty Images in 1995.

This archive is being fulfilled on Getty Images website.

Another precious archive purchased by Getty in the 1990s was the Hulton Picture Collection. This British equivalent of Life magazine appeared in 1938 and became famous immediately, selling almost two million copies a little over two months after the launch. Its largely liberal and anti-fascist editorial made the magazine very popular and active during World War II. They ran campaigns against the Jews` persecution and collected multiple images which became significant historical documents.

Picture Post was a part of Hulton Press, a publishing house owned by Sir Edward Hulton. In 1945 he founded the Hulton Press Library and commissioned the famous historian Charles Gibbs-Smith to develop a system of keywords and classification to catalog the archive. The result turned into the first indexing system for pictures in the world.

The collection was bought by the BBC in 1957 and was enlarged later with photos from the Daily Express and Evening Standard. In 1996 Getty Images acquired it for £8.6 million and started to digitize. The Hulton Archive is now available on its website and provides a significant collection of historical stock photos from the early 1880s to 1990s imagery.

Embed from Getty Images

1980-1990s: Digital Revolution

So, we’re getting closer to our time. The stock photo industry of the modern age is undeniably defined by the invention of the digital camera. By that time it remained a messy and time-consuming business with boxes full of transparencies and armies of workers searching for appropriate pictures. They still used index cards to navigate the archives, worked with post offices and made lots of mistakes. After digital technologies appeared it totally changed the industry: from the ways of distributing pictures to juridical conditions.

The revolution was made in the 1990s by Photodisc, a company from Seattle which started to sell images on CD ROMs on totally new conditions. That was the royalty-free system, which unlike the rights managed license allowed the customers to use pictures multiple times without paying additional fees or reporting on the purpose of using. The copyright remained with the authors which allowed them to sell a single image to numerous customers legally. That was the biggest step to the era of microstock photos as it enabled to cut prices on images. Today the royalty free license is the main type of bulk picture sales on the Internet.

Death by DIY

The 1990s was also a period when “conceptual photos” flooded the market. If traditional stock photography came from documentary shooting and was intended to catch the reality, now the stock pictures were frequently made to create the image of a brand new world of globalization, teamwork, and success. Perhaps here we find the roots of what stock photography is today: often unnatural, staged, exaggerated and even freaky. But its golden age started in 2000 – with the first microstock company – iStockphoto.

The 2000s: Mass-market Cheap Imagery

IStock was founded in Canada by Bruce Livingston and was a free stock photography website during 2000. Livingston started with his own pictures but soon other photographers and designers joined it to exchange imagery. In 2001 Livingston started to charge money for pictures to recoup the website hosting. The company became an immediate success.

That was the very beginning of microstock photography – the industry where pictures cost a penny and are sold on royalty-free conditions via the Internet. Contributors get a percentage of each photo sold and can sell a single image multiple times. Soon imagery became available via monthly subscription. Shutterstock, which appeared in 2003, introduced this model which would become the standard.

Source: Flickr

That was totally different from everything before in the stock photography market. It attracted new audiences, involved more contributors and made stock imagery part of mass culture. Before that, the industry (so-called “macro stock photography”) used to work with high-end pictures which cost hundreds of dollars and ended up in special editions that could afford it: magazines, catalogs, and advertising brochures. Now the new market segment appeared: cheap photography was attractive for small businesses and blogs–because it was affordable. It also coincided with the evolution of digital cameras in the 2000s which allowed amateurs to enter the market. This made microstock photography part of the new business model based on user-generated content.

It was obvious that the market was going to grow and that there would be demand for more and more photos. In 2006 iStock was acquired by Getty–a company known for its expensive and high-quality imagery. That was the reason to keep iStock separated within the company and let Livingston develop this new business segment.

Despite the fact 90% of people have never thought of paying for images on the Internet, iStock, followed by fotoLibra, Dreamstime, Shutterstock, and Fotolia, opened a new era of stock photography which totally changed the industry and our visual world. The next step was made in 2013 when Depositphotos launched a service allowing to upload pictures from smartphones directly to their photo bank. All these innovations gave chance to more people to earn on it and made imagery available for the masses. It became even easier when stock photography websites started to put some content under creative commons license. This means some of the imagery is in public domain and users can get it for free without concerns of copyright infringement. Today some websites provide a possibility to filter public domain pictures out of chargeable.

So, starting with high-end exclusive historical imagery stock photography now combines several functions. It is still a great online archive which allows getting in touch with the past, but it’s also a huge mass market that creates value in our daily lives. Today, as communication is getting more and more visual, millions of pictures not only illustrate but really create our visual landscape, providing value propositions, forming lifestyles and designing the environment.