Survival of the Sexiest

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After 30 years in the stock image business, Florida-based SuperStock realized that in order to stay afloat in the world of consolidation, it needed a drastic makeover. We're not talking a nip here or a tuck there. The company recently underwent massive reconstructive surgery, revamping its catalogs and traditional photographic fare to give itself a sexier, edgier appeal and become a more competitive player against giants like Getty and Corbis.

"I take my hat off to Tony Stone," concedes Kai Chiang, SuperStock COO. "He really opened the door to some very creative and cutting-edge material. He showed us all that there was indeed a place in stock photography for such imagery. Prior to that, many players in the industry believed that we should supply only what customers want. As we did that, many of us ended up with fairly ordinary bread-and- butter images that were sold and used by a lot of people. Even though we ran into very cutting-edge photographers throughout, many players were reluctant to feature their images, because we didn't know if there was a market for them. Then Mr. Stone proved us all wrong. And now, even putting aside the natural evolution of styles and fashion in photography, we've seen a big change, in that more and more customers are far more daring in their use of images." Just as foul language and nudity have made great inroads on commercial TV, editorial and ad use of stock imagery has gone from the Victorian Age to the Victoria's Secret Age. "It appears as if all the rules of Photography 101 have been thrown out the window and there are art directors, art buyers, and even fairly conservative clients out there who are looking for something different," muses Chiang.

"Different" now comes in the form of the appropriately named Metamorphosis, SuperStock's first catalog since the revamp last fall. It has a trimmer, design-savvy shape compared to previous oversized volumes. Also, whereas former catalogs were bulging with feel-good images of kids, rainbows and family vacations, like those you'd find on a '70s wall calendar, the latest edition brazenly offers S&M, daffy dog shots, dreamy goth-inspired landscapes and even a plumber's buttcrack. To be more precise, mainstream photos have dropped from about 75 percent of the content to just a third, Chiang notes. Even the website ( largely promotes the work of its alternative talents, including occasional adult filmmaker Carlos Batts, whose images in the catalog are not a far cry from the roots he developed shooting for skin mags (see Creativity, Photography, December 2001). Moreover, taking another cue from that breakthrough Brit, Mr. Stone, the company recently acquired U.K. stock shop Powerstock. "We have seen an incredible burst of creative energy coming out of the U.K. in the last few years," Chiang points out. With the acquisition, SuperStock now offers the work of 700 photographers. As a follow-up to Metamorphosis the company released Pulse, which showcases work from many of Powerstock's U.K. shooters.

Sexy on the outside and inside, much of SuperStock's business still largely benefits from the traditional fare on which it was raised, and which the company retains in its collection. "There are still plenty of sales coming from bread-and-butter photographs," notes Chiang. "Those images remain very useful." In the case where stodginess wins out, the new makeover still serves a purpose. "Creatives always have a very delicate balancing act between keeping their creative edge and responding to client demands," he adds. "A conservative client will often still refuse the opportunity to use something different. So we try to make the process of choosing more interesting by giving them images that appeal to their own aesthetics. If they want to take a chance and use some of the images that are different and daring, that's great. If they don't, we have the conservative bread-and-butter shots. We're just trying to make the overall experience more interesting for the art buyers."

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