A Life Well-Stocked

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Richard Steedman, president and co-founder of The Stock Market, will be the first to admit that stock photography "became not just a business but my hobby and my life." And a rewarding life in pictures it's been. Steedman and three partners founded the New York-based Stock Market in 1981, but prior to that he was a professional photographer himself, whose specialties were travel and location shooting.

A New York native who studied photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology - "but I didn't finish school, I thought I knew it all," he laughs - Steedman had a varied and colorful career behind the camera. He was a stringer for UPI, worked for the hotels in Puerto Rico for a time and he was a photographer for the Jamaican tourist board for six years in the `60s, part of a crew charged with establishing Jamaica as a major tourist destination after its independence from Britain. "It was a formative experience," he recalls. "In Jamaica, I was creating images that travel agents could use free of charge, so that, in a sense, was the beginning of my stock career. My assignment was to build a vast film library of all the attractions on the island. "

Steedman eventually returned to New York, and his decision to move into the stock arena grew out of his experience as a photographer. "Prior to 1981, I used to sell stock through my agent," Steedman explains. "In the late `70s, when I was working with the Image Bank as a photographer, it became apparent that the important thing was to have a production company that would produce stock for an agency, but always with the idea that there'd be royalties paid to the photographers. When we opened in `81, I knew from my experience I was very much against cutting the photographers out."

Steedman credits the Image Bank with paving the way for his company and others. "They had a very upscale operation," he says. "Before that, it was really more like an archive. It lacked prestige. The history of stock is really founded in pinup pictures and things like kittens with a ball of twine. Its background is in calendar work The struggle at that time was to invest the stock industry with a certain class, so art directors and creative people wouldn't be ashamed to say, `I'm going to look for it in stock.' And over the years, the quality of stock has risen to match the best independent assignment photography.

"My premise was to start a company that would act as a true agent for photographers," he continues "We put the photographers first. What I mean is, when I was an assignment photographer, I had an agent, and I would go to the agent for comfort and consultation. He would go out and try to get me work. It's a very close relationship between an assignment photographer and an agent. When we started this company, we wanted to have that same relationship. We'd be the agent. This influenced all our decisions and the way we built the business. The economics of our business were pretty traditional but the management was very personal. The commission structures were the same, but there was a lot of guidance and mentoring and career development."

When The Stock Market opened, it needed a niche to settle into, "and our specialty was lifestyle," Steedman says. "We developed a number of photographers' careers based on their ability to capture lifestyle images that were perceived as real. Their work had emotional content and actually reflected the values of the people that the picture was aimed at. We always preached that the good stock picture is not one that communicates information; it communicates an emotion. A picture like this could be anything, not simply something obvious like a mother and child. It could be two businessmen, as long as the viewer feels there's a true sense of emotion there. It has to look genuine, not posed. Out of that came my interest in semiotics. I taught a course at Photo Expo and the Maine Photographic Workshop for years to show that you can take images that you thought were successful and decode them to show why it made the viewer want to bond with the picture. It's a science. You could study it and conclude why one picture would be successful and another would fall short. You could look at a group of successful pictures, decode the similarities and use those to create new successful pictures. It was an idea that caught on pretty well, and since we have all the statistics on what sells, we can use that not to get the photographer to take the same picture again but to get him to understand what are the successful elements in the picture, so he can use those elements in another kind of picture. You don't want them repeating themselves. This is always a danger in stock. When a photographer sees an image that sells very well, the quick reflex is to copy it. You don't need to copy it if you understand the semiotics behind the picture."

The other big issue of the `80s that vitalized the stock scene was marketing, according to Steedman. "In the old days, the photo archives were pretty musty dusty places. Clever researchers knew where to go to find an image, but it wasn't organized. What happened in the `80s was mass marketing and advertising. It wasn't enough just to have good images, we had to broadcast it. The `80s marked the advent of catalogs promoting the images. At the time, this was a huge event. It meant that for the first time you could have a mailing list of, say, 40,000 and there was a giant marketplace that could see the work you had, especially the new work. This marketing breakthrough was probably the most dramatic thing that happened to the industry prior to the digital revolution. There were some small catalogs earlier, of course, but for the most part they very grim, like parts catalogs.

"Then came the CD discs in the early `90s," he continues. "Today, our website [stockmarketphoto.com] is the evolution of this digital era; fully e-commerce-enabled, the first in this industry. Before the web, your best pictures used to be held back until the catalog was ready. There might be a nine-month delay till they were seen. Today, good work comes in, it's scanned, it's available to the world instantly. I believe this has resulted in more stock being used, simply because the market is larger and the penetration is more complete. And the business is still supported by highly stylized catalogs, which are used to drive people to the web."

The Stock Market itself is now supported by Bill Gates' Corbis, the leading provider of photography and fine-art images on the internet, which purchased the company earlier this year. In a market where virtually all the major players are aligned with either Corbis or Getty, Steedman believes it was inevitable that his once proudly independent agency would have to join the fold. "It's not a takeover," he insists, "I see it as something different. We were very successful, we were not in any financial position that required a sale, but I looked down the road and thought to myself, there's Getty and there's Corbis and there's us. It goes back to my concept of being an agent and what I feel I owe the photographers. I have to plan for the future, I have to think ahead to what their lives would be like if I was playing a third or fourth place role in the world of stock. Five years from now the massive investment necessary for global marketing in the world of technology means I may not be able to compete. I think we and Corbis will be a very good mix, we're going to be the core of their commercial engine. I know Bill Gates has taken a lot of hits lately, but if I'm going to be competing in the future, I can't think of a better visionary to be involved with."

It seems a safe bet to say that no one's going to tell Richard Steedman to get a life - or even a hobby.