Spotlight on Stock: Imagery, International Style

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It's 1:30 a.m. in Malaysia and Patrick Donehue is buzzing with excitement. The new VP-commercial photography at Corbis has been jet-setting through Asia, meeting with photographers and ad agencies to get the pulse of what's happening in the commercial photography scene there. Today, he's in Kuala Lumpur, where Corbis will open a new branch, and soon he'll be off to Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Singapore. It's all very taxing, but Donehue says he's having the time of his career.

"It's not in its infancy anymore; commercial stock is getting really interesting right now," he says. "In my view, it's become every bit as interesting as the assignment part of this business." A key reason is the global growth of the industry, which he's witnessed first-hand in almost 25 years in the business. He started out shooting his own commercial photography in Seattle for five years, then transferred his skills into management in New York at Photo Researchers. "I cut my teeth on the business back then," he says of his experience trying to jumpstart the commercial side of the primarily editorial agency. "I was trying to focus on the advertising and graphic design side of the business when not a lot of agencies were doing that." He then moved on to oversee the commercial collections at AllStock, Tony Stone, and GettyOne. Since last June, he's been amping up the commercial photography at the Bill Gates-owned Corbis (corbis.com) to offer customers a broader, more worldwide reach.

The company's latest commercial catalog, informally dubbed The Blue Book, is being launched this month. It aims to speak to a wide array of audiences. The book contains classic work from collections of the late fine-art photographer Brett Weston to the more contemporary work of Michael Prince. "One of the things we've been able to do is take advantage of the depth of the editorial collection and get a lot of value out of being able to select a lot of imagery - appropriate imagery - that would appeal to contemporary designers and art directors from a global perspective," explains Donehue. "And when you mix that together with the new work that's being put out right now, it's a really interesting blend."

In the commercial stock industry, where business is driven largely by being able to predict market trends, there's also good reason to look beyond U.S. borders to find out what's going to happen at home. "I think a lot of us to tend to be rather geocentric in our approaches," Donehue notes. Our world is what we see; but if you go into worlds you don't see, there's an awful lot to learn. Trying to predict trends is a challenge, but you can kind of see them develop globally."

The Asian markets and a number of European markets, he points out, are notable pacesetters. Take the recent popularity of black and white imagery. "In the last few years, there's been a lot more use of black and white photography in commercial stock in the U.S. That was actually preceded by a very strong movement in Europe, probably six or seven years ago. I think a lot of it came out of the photojournalism and reportage in Europe. I'm not sure if it originated there, but it's clearly much more of a prominent movement in Europe."

And what has he gleaned from his travels in Asia? "It's a pretty radical departure from what we're used to seeing in America - different use of the color palette, a lot of digital technology as it goes into the image-making process," he observes. "At least from what I've seen over the past week, the colors tend to be a little more saturated than what we're used to seeing in America and in Europe, where things are more pastel, a bit more muted. A lot of the contemporary work I've seen in the past few days tends to pump up the colors, to go a little bit electric. As we're trying to put together this global collection, that's really important for us to look at, because we've got to meet the needs of JWT in New York - and JWT in Hong Kong.

"One of the dangers, particularly if you're crazy enough to be in this business as long as I have, is that there's a real tendency to feel like you've seen it all," he adds. "Once you get complacent, it's all over."

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