Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Interview With Lewis Blackwell, Director of Strategy for Image Source

"...once you see creativity as the key aspect of your work, then you might not be constrained by the photographic medium." Lewis Blackwell

Lewis, you spent many years as editor-in-chief of Creative Review, for eight years served as Group Creative Director with Getty Images, and now are Director of Strategy for Image Source. You have also produced a series of very impressive books including The End of Print, The Life & Love of Trees and Photowisdom.   

Can you give us a brief overview of your journey into the graphic arts world on through to your current position with ImageSource?

I studied English and more arcane stuff, then got my hands dirty training as a journalist (you’ve heard about UK journalists) before specialising in writing about applied creative fields such as architecture, design… and photography. I was one of the founding editors of a title called DesignWeek and then took on Creative Review. I consulted with some great organisations in advertising, design and publishing areas as well. The rest you have summarized. Joining Image Source has given me the opportunity to work with very nice and smart people on a whole new range of innovations that we would like to bring into the stock industry. If anything holds this all together, it is that I see myself exploring and enjoying the communication arts, making a living and having fun doing something that I think is on the plus-side of our civilisation.

I am convinced that creativity is an increasingly vital part of the photography business. As creating images gets easier via technological advances, creativity, more and more, replaces technical ability as a route to success. Do you have any suggestions on how we can increase our creativity?

I agree – photographers own less of the means of supply in terms of equipment and craft, so it really comes down to creativity. I would add to it that once you see creativity as the key aspect of your work, then you might not be constrained by the photographic medium. The line is shifting between photography and film, or between one kind of photography and another, between different roles in shaping media. Photographers would do well to ceaselessly question their craft(s), and to seek to apply their creativity in whatever medium best serves. But for a more practical tip on creativity, I recommend simply making sure you do something different with your life and work – for example: changing who you work with, going on holiday, deliberately shooting a subject that you have no expertise in but a strange curiosity about, asking somebody else to tell you what they dislike about your work and then considering if you can remove those obstacles... all these changes are about getting some searching feedback into your work. Photography can be quite a solipsistic activity otherwise. Great photographs surprise us with seeing things differently – so great photographers need to endlessly find ways to see things differently.

Where do you get your inspiration?

People and places, in that order. People: some that I know very well, some a little, and many that I don’t know at all but I get to take something from how they look, act and communicate. I wish I were systematic in my appreciation of all that they have to offer. Places: travel, whether far or near, is vital to me. I am just back from the Scottish Highlands, and so now I dream of what it might take to restore the Caledonian Forest, while still sparkling with the sensation of a swim in Loch Ewe, and fascinated that my prediction that such remote places might increasingly be at the centre of things was immediately borne out by the arrest of a demon 18-year-old alleged super-hacker in the Shetlands.  Power is devolving! Well, perhaps. I also read a lot… and increasingly make a very concerted effort to read long-form writing and also to look at things in a long-form – don’t flick a book of photographs, but give it time. Really look at one picture or object that interests rather than surf endlessly. I don’t really want to entertain myself seeing more superficially, but to challenge myself to see things in more depth. 

 What is the biggest mistake you see stock shooters making?

A common mistake is to be simplistic about the return and the risks and to then use that as an excuse for doing derivative work, or staying out of the market, or complaining when your personal work doesn’t sell as much as you blindly hoped. It is a particularly tough answer because it doesn’t really help the reader. The only way you can get over the problem is by taking risks that you can afford, being optimistic and at the same time skeptical, and moving fast to take opportunities, or to learn from experience. All a bit general I am afraid as different photographers face different challenges in making sense of stock.

Is stock still a viable option for photographers?

This depends which photographers we are talking about. It can be very rewarding both financially and in the lifestyle it helps support. A great many new recruits to stock photography around the world attest to its appeal. However, the changes in the industry and the shifting dynamics of how a set of images will return can make it off-putting for those of a more conservative mindset who measure things by how things used to work. But if you have difficulty in responding to change then you will find it hard in most areas of culture or industry.

Even after shooting stock for over twenty years one of the most vexing problems for me is to decide where to place an image. How the heck do you decide whether an image belongs in micro, RF or RM? What are your criteria?

Tricky question and, again, I have no simple answer. The variables of the kind of work and the best distributor partners available will affect whether micro, RF or RM will work for the photographer. You shouldn’t simply assume is that micro is cheap, RF is in the middle and RM is expensive – clients can spend hundreds of dollars in a microstock site on an image, and they can get RM cheaply.

The larger question is the kind of offer that collectively we want to bring about, the kind of business we want to take part in. At present clients often don’t care about the license type or even the price, as long as it is affordable for the specific budget: they care to quickly find and be able to use a picture. As a photographer, there may be more in this than just assuming you are chasing the best $ return. You should be choosy about the kind of people or businesses you work with. After the period of commoditizing there would seem room in the market for offers that give customers some real choice and values that they care about. I don’t get the sense that customers really care about or care for some of the companies they do business with today. So this has to be an opportunity and photographers can help the change. How can we improve? It’s going to take another little revolution...                      

Can you give us suggestions on how to go about determining where the “holes” are in a collection, or just plain what to shoot?

There are many holes out there – some are curious niches that are very poorly served, some are very popular areas that need new treatments. At Image Source, I could reel off a few categories where we are working hard to meet both perceived need for renewal and extension of choice, while there are also areas that are more specialist but I know would sell if we had good images. But a general rule that many photographers struggle to get is that a successful image, a successful shoot, is one that has a lot of great concepts in it (rather than being simply illustrative) and also avoids ‘picture killers’ that limit the usage or will make the image date quickly. 

Do you see Internet searches playing an increasingly large role in stock photo searches?

Yes and no. Google may be a popular starting point for many perhaps less-expert buyers of images; and it could become more popular if the industry is poor in creating a next-generation search experience of its own. But the client should get a better way of finding images and service around images than Google could ever be bothered with.

Do you think it is helpful for a stock shooter to develop a brand?

We all have a personal brand, from the point at which our parents give us a name. The question for photographers is what kind of brand they want to have. Most photographers I know who shoot stock do not necessarily want their brand strongly associated with that. And I agree: you should be a photographer first… how your images reach the market and the production structure behind them is incidental to getting across the message of how good the images are, or how responsive you are as a professional partner, and so forth.

Are tablets coming to the rescue?

They are not rescuing anything, but they are another platform or tool that has to be considered. There are some clients that are really best reached by tablet-friendly sites. That is becoming an increasing influence, as are smart phones, on how we shape image sites. And as a tool for photographers to present their portfolio or a project, the tablet is excellent.

Some photographers have succeeded by producing copious numbers of images and with a high level of production value. Others of us have done well by focusing on more unique images. In the coming years what kinds of strategies do you think will work well for stock photographers?

Both models, and points on the scale in-between, have validity. But they are also fraught with risks that need to be assessed against the work and investments made into it. There are a lot of shooters cranking out quantity and sites are increasingly seeking to get out from under this inundation of content. It is not good for customers, or agencies, to be hosed down with endless images of a high-production but low-creativity nature. And while ‘more unique images’ appeals to the creative in me, if your few gems are hard to find or positioned out-of-place then they will not sell and you will starve. So you need to know your market and get better exposure than the competition.

What it is that we stock shooters would do well to pay more attention to?

First, know as much as you can about what earns the money… and accept that you may not want to chase the most high-yielding areas. You may value your soul differently. But don’t expect to be paid well for what you are interested in if that is not what the market wants. You need to be as highly informed as you can be about risk and return and then it really depends on what kind of photographer you are or want to be. Some are doing well by moving very fast to crank out the latest stuff, refreshing their fairly commoditized offering time-and-again at a price that delivers a RoI. Others have a niche that they serve well with a quality that lasts and is hard to copy. Both are credible routes.
Second, make an effort not to put your eggs in one basket – see how different companies can work for you.  Remember photographers have done much to build the industry as it is and by your actions, which you work for and where you put content, you will continue to shape it. Collective actions will make the future industry.

I know some stock photographers who track their sales by model and believe that the model is key to a successful stock image. I know at least one stock shooter who uses the same model over and over again…for years now, and with great success. Can you share your feelings about casting and models?

That efficient repetition makes sense – some faces have a wide appeal, and some models can really work their potential with a great deal of flexibility. Some models smile in a way that just makes you want to agree with them, while others ooze trustworthiness in a way that goes beyond ethnicity. And as clients are typically looking at an image that works for them, rarely considering how your portfolio has the same model numerous times - as doctor here and mother there and business leader over there – there is little downside. But there is a wide range of humanity to draw on and so I would encourage photographers to keep the gene pool of models developing. 

Do you shoot stock, or have you ever considered shooting stock your self?

I don’t. I am much more interested – and more expert and experienced – in building and delivering strategies for creative work to thrive in commercial applications. 

Oversupply and the low prices of microstock have brought the price of all stock images down. iStockphoto has been raising its prices largely through the introduction of higher-priced collections. I noticed that Getty is now emphasizing the higher cost in production and time in promoting their RM collections. Do you think that the fees charged for licensing stock have stopped their free fall, and do you believe that agencies can boost prices for their higher echelon collections?

In short, yes. The longer answer is that I think we will still see price pressures – that’s the nature of a healthy competitive market – but we will also see companies building more differentiated offerings that can command higher pricings. We have been through a period of aggressive commoditization; now it is time for innovation that can deliver greater value to the customers beyond price. 

With their TAC (The Agency Collection) and Vetta collections, Getty has blurred the lines between traditional stock and microstock. Other agencies are now offering both licensing types on the same site. It seems to me that the big difference between microstock and RF is simply price. As traditional and microstock models continue to merge do you see any repercussions?

Not so much repercussions as opportunities. Prices are rising on leading ‘microstock’ sites, disappearing some of the difference. Prices have fallen in traditional agencies. Image quantities continue to increase but some qualities have been compromised. The customers who spend money regularly (as opposed to those who are really just spending $5 once in a while) want – and deserve – a better experience. Out of the convergence of existing models, along with other factors that are yet to really play out in this industry but will, we expect to see exciting changes. 

What is it that photographers aren’t “getting” about the stock photo business?

I am not so sure photographers are missing that much. I think a lot of photographers really understand – and indeed create – the potential of this industry. Some are very new to the industry, while others are old hands who have reinvented themselves several times over. And there are others who just do cool work from time to time and use the industry as part of their portfolio of interests. All are welcome! Your question is a bit like asking what a supplier doesn’t get about retailing – well, sure there are a lot of new developments out there, but you don’t have to be an expert in all areas to make a vital contribution and get a useful outcome. My general counsel is to work with people and companies that have a good record; work with those that you trust and that you like to work with. Good things are more likely to flow out of a healthy relationship than a poor one.

Stepping away from stock for a moment, I recently purchased your book Photowisdom: Master Photographers on Their Art.  What a wonderful book! It felt very intimate to me…a chance to get a glimpse into the inner workings of some really incredible photographers…actually, a lot of incredible photographers!  

How does the finished book compare with your original concept?

It comes close. Of course, there are things that did not turn out as I first envisaged but then events happened along the way that made it better than I first hoped. I managed to get interviews with most photographers I asked and many were wonderfully generous in their time and consideration of my questions. I have had good feedback on the overall production quality too… which given the challenges of getting the work of 50 different photographers balanced out across the printing, can be a headache. 

What was the most surprising thing that came up for you during the making of Photowisdom?

I think that might be… how good photographers can be at putting their ideas into words as well as images. This despite often having doubts about their ability to say much about what they do. The simple truth is that while I asked the questions and wrote up the interviews, the fine thoughts in Photowisdom are chiefly theirs. But then you would know this polymath nature of the photographer – as a master blogger!

What was the most important thing you learned in creating Photowisdom?

It reminded me, as a sometime journalist, how vital it is to do the research. An interview is usually only as good as its questions. Preparation, preparation. Stephen Shore even required me to sign up to having read various key texts of his ahead of the conversation… which was slightly bossy, but was the right thing because we were able to quickly get to ideas that he really cared about.

Part of Photowisdom is a charitable undertaking. How does that work?

On behalf of the photographers who supported Photowisdom, we made a significant donation to the London-based organization PhotoVoice, along with a share in ongoing royalties, and this helped them initiate a project in Afghanistan. They give cameras to marginalized people to help them raise awareness. In this case, they worked with children in Kabul. You can read about it here http://www.photovoice.org/projects/international/visible-rights-afghanistan-2010

What is your next book project?

I am working on several books where I have had an idea and I am now editing or otherwise helping the publication come about. Some are destined for 2012 publication. There are two projects where my contribution is more demanding and they will take longer… so I am afraid out of superstition, and perhaps not wanting to look an idiot if they don’t come off, that is as much as I will say.

Are there any words of wisdom you would like to leave us with?

I have a great fondness for Bruno Munari’s definition of a tree: the slow explosion of a seed. 

Lewis Blackwell, Director of Strategy for Image Source.


Russell Glenister said...

I believe you mean marginalized:

They give cameras to marginalize people to help them raise awareness. In this case, they worked with children in Kabul. You can read about it

John Lund said...


Thanks for catching that!


Anonymous said...

I am a Image Source contributor and have been for 4 years. There problem is that they only pay a derisory 20% commission which is unacceptable in the digital age.
Check Jim Pickerell http://bit.ly/ggYJOI for reasons why. Nearly 95% of my sales come from distributors and are tiny. So a $100 sale will be cut twice. Often ending up with less than $5! There is little incentive to produce new work when sales are so poor.
It is much better to go with Blend or Tetra who pay a much higher % rate. Good companies run by photographers.
Mr Stock Shooter