A current advertisement for a photolibrary shows duplicate images of a dustpan full of broken china—with two alternate captions: “Greek wedding” and “lovers tiff.” The ad, for London based Stock Ibid, raises an easy laugh and an awkward selling point. “Whatever you want to say, say it with ibid,” runs the punchline, but the idea that the same image can suggest a plate-smashing nuptial celebration or a plate-smashing fight seems to highlight the fact that stock is non-exclusive. The semantic elasticity of an image is what brings in the profits at a photo-library. But do buyers need to be reminded of that?

The British design and art direction magazine Creative Review regularly runs a feature on photolibraries’ best-selling pictures of the year. The result is an eclectic assortment of images, from serene still lifes to abstract, digitally composed montages. In some cases, as in Jack Atley’s familiar shot of naked shoppers in a music store (they were offered a free CD if they disrobed in the store), the image begs for a thigh-slapping caption. In others, the voice of the image is almost mute, to allow the context and caption shape the meaning. One cerebral example by photographer Arthur Tress, a shot of two hands forming a rectangular frame over a cloud on the ocean horizon, is listed by Creative Review as having been used in brochures, exhibition panels, CD cover and posters. The range of possible meanings is remarkable, but in the stock business, par for the course. A successful image is one that hits a number of topical themes, notes Lewis Blackwell, the creative director of Getty. “We had a shoot by a German photographer of the new business environment, which was immensely successful,” says Blackwell, “It was about business being empowering and enabling, with different power structures—in each shot, the woman is often the most powerful figure.” Though, Getty ensures against simultaneous usage by rival firms, that didn’t stop pictures from the same shoot appearing in two concurrent ad campaigns.

But stock photography is a peculiarly ingenuous example of the fluidity of meaning inherent in all photography. Susan Sontag noted in her book On Photography that every photograph has multiple meanings, and that “with the passage of time its moorings come unstuck.” A vivid example of this disembarkation of meaning over time is Cuban photographer Alberto Korda’s shot of Che Guevara at a protest rally in 1960. At the time of the photograph, it expressed simply the rage of Guevara and his Cuban compatriots at the bombing of an arms freighter in Havana harbor, in which counter-revolutionaries killed over 100 dock workers. At Guevara’s death in 1967, however, the image gained the saintly glow of a martyr. Over the ensuing decades, detached from its moorings, the image turned into the international commercial motif for anti-establishment anythingism, appearing on t-shirts, buttons and record covers. Only its recent manifestation in an ad for Smirnoff Vodka incited Korda to come out of retirement and attempt to haul in his floating Che. He filed a copyright infringement suit, and was quoted in the press saying ‘alcohol and Che Guevara have nothing in common."

Stock, by contrast, purposely trades in anonymity. If Che Guevara lost his identity in the passage of the photograph and became a kind of revolutionary everyman, the people who appear in stock photos begin life where Che ended up, as anonymous representations of concepts. The names of the laughing blonde, bronzed man and woman running along the beach at sunset are Togetherness and Romance, at least according to the photolibraries’ online search engines. One striking example of stock’s depersonalizing mechanism is the spiky haired, bespectacled Asian man who modeled for San Francisco-based designer Clement Mok’s budding digital clip art library in 1997 and became a de facto dot com poster boy. After his image was sold along with Mok’s library to Photodisc, which was sold to Getty, the spiky haired lad had appeared in over 20 advertisements for companies ranging from InfoSpace to Kodak to Domino’s Pizza. He had become so ubiquitous by last year that a Website was launched to trace his true identity. He briefly surfaced from anonymity to become George Chen—his real name—in an article in The Industry Standard magazine, then drifted back to being common currency for the everygeek, the unthreatening human face of the digital revolution.

How did photography develop this kind of visual shorthand that turns people into concepts and sunsets into romantic soundtracks? The earliest photographers considered themselves copyists, and viewed the results of their labors as the effect of nature imprinting itself on the camera lens, without the interference of the artist’s pencil. In fact, photography is culture’s way of imprinting meaning and order on the world, not the reverse. We use the camera to slice up and punctuate experience into organized packages. Photographs have the reassuring effect of leveling the things we consider important or fearsome into equal-sized images. “Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs,” says Sontag, “is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is addicted.”

The stock photography catalogue furthers this representation, ordering and idealizing of the world by arranging the coded images into themes. Image Bank, another Getty-owned company, sorts its images into six hefty 500 page books: Life, Sport, Nature, Travel, Work, Ideas. A neater and more tacit summation of western civilization’s priorities would be hard to find.

Inside the catalogues is a veritable dictionary of what has become a coded visual language. In the Image Bank “Work” book, for example, there are pages and pages of men in suits—on cellphones, crawling through deserts, walking with ball and chain attached to ankles. Then come the women in suits—balancing a laptop on knee, scratching head, drinking coffee. These are the stock-in-trade of stock, metaphors introducing contemporary themes—mobility, overwork and frustration for men, and liberty, empowerment and concentration for women. Gender roles are still distinct, but quite evolved from the early Eadweard Muybridge studies of men and women, for example, in which men boxed and women twirled umbrellas. In today’s stock, men are occasionally seen twirling umbrellas, revealing a direct genealogical relation to the Muybridge work.

Another enduring motif of stock—the rolling dunes of a desert—offers a simple insight in how the tropes of contemporary photography come armed with certain histories of meaning, which are then skillfully altered by those manipulating them (ie designers). The advertising agency TBWA Hunt Lascaris, for instance, developed a print ad for Land Rover added the caption ‘ribbed for extra pleasure’ to a stock desert dunes shot. Thus we are confronted with the idea of the desert—conventionally used to signify anything from hardship to nature’s beauty— being used as a metaphor for a condom (and by association, for a virgin landscape to be deflowered by a Land Rover driver.) Still more bizarre is the sudden prevalence of frogs in stock catalogs, apparently from the spawn of the Budweiser frog. Associating amphibians with beer, which subliminally plays on the similarity between the pondside mating call and the beer drinker’s belch, has lent the frog a lovable macho quality.

Tibor Kalman’s last issue of Colors magazine, which featured a magazine-long narrative told entirely in images from photolibraries, struggles to supersede the idealized narratives inherent within the stock images with an meta-narrative. “We’re in the mind of an alien who is just staring at everything,” explained Kalman in a subsequent interview. “So you start in outer space, you come in towards the earth, get aerial views, and then you see water, land, architecture and then you see garbage.” The opening images of Colors (issue 13,) show nature in its full, romanticized stock photo glory, from golden waves to cheetahs at sunset. There is even the ribbed pleasure of a desert. The initial effect is as if the alien descended directly through the roof of a stock photo-library. But appropriately enough, the issue begins to gain a little gravity as photojournalistic images are interspersed with the stock, first with David Parker’s still striking image of garbage in a tourist town of Peru and Bruce de Lis’s shot of homeless camps in Sacramento, CA. Colors creative director Fernando Gutiérrez, who collaborated with Kalman on the issue, says that the mix was partly dictated by a tight, two-month turnaround. “Ideally it would have all been reportage, but although some were blatantly stock images it was still part of the story” says Gutiérrez. “But it was also about the value of the picture—some were immensely valuable and some were ephemeral. We liked that mix.”

Kalman and Gutiérrez’s clever orchestration and pacing of the images, taking cues from Charles and Ray Eames’s film Powers of Ten, proceeds at a seemingly faster tempo as images multiply on the page, utilizing the alien-eye to make startling juxtapositions; a naked couple entwined, two carrots entwined, and human hands entwined and clamped over the mouth and ears of another man. This last image highlights both the art and the artifice in their efforts to recontextualize existing imagery. Kalman’s point, to segue sex, mating and violence by allowing the appearance of the images to lead the story strips the images of their original meaning. In the case of the couple and the carrots, the loss of voice is irrelevant—the images are largely voiceless. But the picture of entwined hands, as a caption at the back of the magazine reveals, was photographed by Yeohong Yoon at an assembly of the South Korean parliament in 1994 at which the vice chairman of its national assembly was trying to push through the budget amid efforts by members of the opposition to keep him from speaking. Denying the image its voice reveals the reductive reductive ideology of the alien-eye narrative, which levels carrots, sex and political machinations to pieces in Kalman’s jigsaw of human experience.

Gutiérrez points out that the “value” of an image was never a fixed fact with Colors, which is distributed to several dozen countries. To Americans the Korean parliament image may be shocking, but to Koreans the image may be quite familiar, even funny. “Meaning is interesting because it depends on which culture you’re from,” says Gutiérrez. It is familiarity that softens the voice of a photograph. Moored to a recent event, the news image begins life as a potent, singular voice. Once it enters a photolibrary, an image is fast on the way to becoming visual shorthand for general themes rather than specific events. The next stage in its development is to become a visual cliché. To western eyes, the Korean parliament picture was perhaps simply earlier in the cycle.

The cyclical journey does not end with stock clichés, either. A once-potent image, reproduced to death, can enjoy a healthy resurrection in the hands of an capable ironist. Led Zeppelin’s 1976 album Presence, designed by Storm Thorgerson and Hipgnosis, used a series of photolibary images of happy 1970s family scenes, each altered to turn the focus point into a mysterious black object. While its homage to surrealism came to look rather dated in the subsequent decades, with the recent revival of posed photography and 1970s society, it resurfaced on the cover of the savvy art magazine Frieze. New Order’s 1993 CD Republic, meanwhile, featured a seamless montage designed by Peter Saville and Brett Wickens of cliched stock images of sunsets, beaches and mountains blended with images of burning buildings. In interviews about the design, Saville pointed out that this was the staunchly independent band’s first release with a major label, Warner Bros, and would be popularly perceived as a commercial sell-out album. The juxtaposition of “perfect” stock with burning buildings was an ironic response to anticipated criticism. It was also informed by Saville’s experience of living in Los Angeles in the early 1990s, a city peddling filmic images of perfection while being torn apart by race riots.

Saville used the same images, individually extracted from the montage, for the CD single sleeves, most memorably employing a picture of a cowboy on horseback lighting another’s cigarette against a dazzling sunset for a New Order single titled “Regret.” The shift of voice, from a romantic smoking metaphor—worn out by the international advertising empire of Marlboro cigarettes—to this sharply melancholic lyricism, was so poignant that it proceeded to inform a generation of anti-smoking ads. One in particular added to a similar cowboy-sunset image the caption “I miss my lung, Bob.”tk Whether or not the anti-smoking ad took direct cues from Saville’s design is beside the point: the passage of the image reveals its intertextual nature, each new context deriving meaning from the previous.

Even the freshest news photographs function on this intertextual level. When federal agents removed the six-year-old Cuban boy Elián González from his great-uncle’s Miami home, the Associated Press released one of its best-selling images of last year, a picture by Alan Diaz of the screaming boy being taken at gunpoint. Eight hours later, the attorney for Gonzalez’s father released a picture taken by a US Marshal of a smiling Elian reunited with his father. The second image gained its potency as a counterpoint to the first, to the extent that both the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post felt that they could not run one image without the other, and showed both, equal sized, on their front pages.’ Clearly the picture with the agent is more dramatic,” said L.A. Times deputy director of photography Steve Stroud to Photo District News magazine, “but it is only a small part of the story that unfolded that day."

The possibility remains that, in years to come, the first Gonzalez photo will have become visual shorthand perhaps for hostile government—and the second a universal image for a modern day prodigal son. No picture, no matter how newsy, is immune from commodification and, through that process, the generalization of its meaning. As the image distribution tentacles spread worldwide, the idea that an image can have a common currency in every culture becomes increasingly feasible. Blackwell notes one recent example in the international popularity of a documentary picture of a high speed pitstop change at Nascar races. Nascar’s recent rise to popularity in the US has enabled this particular image to become an international metaphor for teamwork. What dominates US TV screens now dominates the world’s.

Designers may have more power to influence this process than they think. Blackwell often gives a slide lecture to designers in which he shows a high-selling stock image of 1991—a hopelessly hackneyed, outdated picture. “If you don’t like it,” Blackwell tells his audience, “you only have yourself and your predecessors to blame. You’re probably doing the same thing right now—making a new visual cliché.”

© Peter Hall, no republication without permission of the author.