Apples and Oranges

There was something very interesting about the photo news last week. On one side there’s the mighty Getty Images  (aka, the whale) who took a deep plunge in pricing with its subscription royalty free  offering, combining microstock  and pro. On the other, legendary Magnum photos that managed a great coup by selling some used prints for an estimated $ 30 million dollars.

Like two extremities of the same stick, this is a great reflection of where the business of photography stands today. On one side an entity that has reduced its photography to a cheap commodity to be sold as individual snapshots and on the other, a photographers coop that is so highly respected that it can sell old black and white prints full of written notes as highly valuable historical artifacts. Yet, both are selling the same thing: Photographs.

According to numerous interviews given by Mark Lubell , director of Magnum New York, one key condition for the members of the coop to approve the sale was that the images would not be scattered and sold as individual entities. Magnum photographers have a well established tradition of selling pictures together, a group of images that tell a story. It has been frequently debated, over the years, that Magnum could have perhaps made more profit if it had broken these stories and sold them as individual images. But none of the photographer-creators would have it any other way. Shot as a story, sold as a story.

Part of the condition for the deal with the Michael Dell  owned fund is that images cannot be separated from the story they belong to. On the other end of the spectrum, Getty Images does exactly the opposite. It extracts images from their context, their stories, and sells them as individual files. Their motivation is that the image alone, has a better chance of finding a buyer than a group of images sold as a story. Also, individual files sales can easily be automated while photo essays and photo journalism in general, needs a pitch, an explanation, a real human sales person.

This is where a key differentiation appears which is reflected everywhere in the marketplace. If your business is about licensing individual files, then it’s all about volume. You do not take a proactive approach to selling. Instead, you try to cover any possible potential need for an image that could humanly be conceived. You stick them in an archive and then you wait. You wait for a buyer to come and be hooked, or not. The market creates the demand.

If you license a photographer’s work, a story, a career, an inspiration, the approach is completely different. You cannot wait for a client to come and find it. You have to go out and fetch it. You have to take the photographer’s work, find a potential client who could be interested and close the deal. The photographer, in this case, creates the demand.

If you want the market to create the demand, the prices are low, very, very low. If you create the demand, the prices are high, very high. Unfortunately, most photo agencies these days have gone the route of competing with each other on the individual file sales path. Mostly because it’s much easier, cheaper, and demands almost no special skills. The more agencies, the bigger the offering, the more prices go down.

Getting amateurs to fill these image banks has recently greatly lowered the costs, with the perverse effect of also lowering the prices. Magnum, and others, like Contact, Redux , PictureGroup , and Aurora  have deliberately chosen to represent photographers’ work and not to distribute individual files. Their production is the reflection of its chosen creators, their image bank set up to license stories, and their sales staff is experienced in the complex art of pitching.

Sure, it’s more expensive and much more complicated. It demands talent and sometimes perseverence against frustration. However, the prices are dictated by the value perceived by the creator, not the by the market. The result: deals like Magnum just made. In photography, it’s not the market who dictates the pricing. It’s how you present it.

About the author

“This business has too many Surveyors and not enough Bohemians”  Roger Therond , legendary photo man, once said to a good friend of mine, Eliane Laffont. This blog is about restoring the balance and letting the Bohemians talk.

 Paul Melcher  has been named one of the “50 most influential individuals in American photography” by American Photo. He is currently senior vice president of the PictureGroup. He writes the Thoughts of a Bohemian blog

Marco | Editor

Editor at large and founder of a bunch of stockphoto businesses