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Quick! We need a cover shot! It's gotta be b&w. Make it warm, friendly, familiar, familial and, um, give it a little nostalgia for the good ol' days. Oh, and by the way, we need it by noon tomorrow. No, make that 10. Our budget's about the size of your kid's piggy bank. What can you do for us?

Sound familiar? Maybe you've been on one end or the other of this conversation with a stock photo house before. It's probably how most of the requests for images that stock houses get are delivered. And it puts them in the interesting position of having to exercise, on a regular basis, their own brand of editorial judgment.

For example, we used this ploy looking for a cover image for this issue, one that might also serve to bind together our stock feature this month. So we contacted Archive Photos here in New York for our "See You in September" beauty, and not only did they deliver but they nailed the concept, which was something along the lines of, "Give us something that'll catch the reader's eye and make it quick. Please."

And, as we all know, that's the objective of the stock photography industry. But it's also an industry that seems to be intimidatingly large. With so many companies out there providing services to the creative community, how does one choose one collection over the other, particularly when many seem to offer pretty much the same kind of images?

Essentially, we wanted to explore what differentiates one catalog from another. For us, it was most probably a taste issue-which house has researchers who best understand the evocative tone that each image, in its own totally subjective way, calls for. With that in mind, we asked a number of stock photo houses to interpret for us a pretty amorphous concept: vision.

The gallery on pages 26 and 27 are what we got, along with some insight into what is probably the most creative part of the stock business-the search.

"What first jumped out at me about this photo was having a 'vision of God,' but it encompasses more than that," says Tony Stone Images photo researcher Kristin Neveu of an atmospheric photo by William J. Hebert of Rio's Christ the Redeemer statue. "The lighting and composition of the photo provide a futuristic, visionary feel, while the statue itself is old, standing the test of time and viewing the world from its perch."

Swanstock, a Tucson-based company which was recently bought by The Image Bank, submitted this shot a the girl huddled against the wall, magnifying glass in hand, which was shot by Frances Murray. How does it illustrate vision? Admits account rep Jackie Alpers, "This one is literal and direct."

Swanstock characterizes itself as a company that houses fine art photographs as a creative alternative to traditional stock photography. Further, explains Alpers, "We only represent the personal work of fine-art photographers. None of what we have was shot for stock. Ours are definitely more heartfelt. They have more soul." Adds founder Mary Virginia Swanson, "We are organized alphabetically by artist, which means our priorities are all about the imagery and what the imagery says. Everything here is about being a part of the creative process."

This image of hanging money ("Incentives, Sales, Bonus," the work of Vito Aluia) comes from Boston-based Light Sources, and, says agency president Patricia Hunt, it illustrates the communal modern driving vision, boldly. Light Sources is a small stock photography company that also serves as a photographic gallery with custom rental darkrooms and a professional products store. A lot of its customers are also its contributors, notes Hunt.

And what of Photodisc's paper clip sketch, shot by Steve Cole? Explains VP-content development Natalie Angelillo, "The reason this one was chosen has to do with the idea of where ideas begin-perhaps on a napkin, and at odd times. It's about the origins of vision and where ideas start."

And that more or less sums it up. The creative community may very well be inundated with weighty stock photography catalogs, which induces a fear of tumbling shelves, but there is, as we all know, a very good reason for it. In fact, once the individual agencies themselves are explored, there's a character and specialty to each provider.

Creative Contexts

Variations on a theme by Beck

Photographer: Jason Beck

Stock house: Nonstock, New York

Ammirati & Puris/Lintas, 1996.

Hyperion Books, 1996. Cover design by Leah Lococo.

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