A Look at the History Behind Stock Photography

By Orana Velarde 3 weeks ago

We are so used to stock photography that we don’t ever stop to think about how it all started in the first place. It’s so easy now to just log on to Freepik, Unsplash or Rawpixel and download the photos we need.

The history of stock photography started as a solution to the high costs of professional photographers and their services. During the early 20th century, magazines and newspapers used illustrations to visualize the stories they printed. As they moved on to photography, the cost of having in-staff photographers sparked the idea of having photo banks readily available for print publications.

Today we will look at the evolution of stock photography, from the first image by H. Armstrong Roberts to the digital free stock libraries we know today.

The first stock photo

The first ever photograph which can be considered as stock is an image of a group of people in front of an airplane. This was a photograph was taken by H. Armstrong Roberts sometime between the 1920s and 1930s. What made this photo different was that he got model releases from the participants, giving the photographer rights to do sell the photo to any media outlet, even more than once. This was just the beginning of what was to come

The photo is still available on the Alamy Stock Photo site and it’s quite costly!

alamy stock photo

Source: http://bit.ly/2KZOSnI

The first collections

After that first photo, more and more print media agencies started using stock photography to save costs. Photographers saw the opportunity to make money a different way and went for it. Some of the most famous archives were at first photographs by one single photographer. Such is the case with The Bettmann Archive, a collection of photos taken by Otto Bettmann.

Bettmann was a Jewish photographer who ran from Europe during World War II. He arrived in New York with suitcases full of photographs and slides. These became the basis of the greatest photo archive of the era. LIfe magazine used many of them.  Not so long ago the archive with over 16 million images – including Bettmann’s originals – is now owned by Bill Gates.

From the 1940s to the 80’s more great photography archives grew steadily as more media outlets needed photos. During the first half of the 20th century, photo archives were mostly directed at photojournalism. They were snippets into the life of real people or snapshots of historic events.

In the 1960s, Tony Stone started an archive of art-directed photos. This was a new direction for stock photography and came with a new business style in which the image could be licensed many times to many outlets as long as they gave the photographer details about where it was used. Tony Stone’s archived then became Getty Images and you know how huge that is!

getty image photo

Source: http://bit.ly/2vk7Cna

When things go digital

Before the 1980s, photo archives were kept as prints and negative film. When a journalist wanted an image they would consult the printed catalog which their agency received every year and then would receive the printed image to add to their page setup.

The first digital stock photography came along with a new set of rules. Agencies could buy a CD-ROM full of images and by paying once could use any of them, any amount of times without having to tell the photo archivists where it was used.

If an agency wanted to license a photo so that only they could use it and no one else, there was a hefty fee. Some agencies chose to do that when it was less expensive than hiring a photographer.

stock photo

Source: https://www.amazon.com/Vintage-photo-CD-ROM-XA/dp/B07DWDMZY3

Stock Photography as we know it

With the rise of the internet, stock photography took a whole new meaning. There was so much out there to choose from! But what happened was that a lot of the new stuff was pretty much terrible. Lots of stock photography “for businesses” was just the worst! They were staged badly and then also used over and over by many different companies.

As the variety of people that needed stock photography veered away from photojournalism and towards bloggers and small businesses, new stock photography started to appear. A more creative, natural, and more appealing style.

Sites like Unsplash, where every photo is free, made a huge difference in the stock photography space. When it first started, I remember there was only like 10 free photos with 10 new ones every month. Now it’s a monster and everyone loves it.

How do you use stock photography?

Are you a regular user of stock photography? Did you know you can still find stock photography from before it all went digital? Check out the site, Historical Stock Photos and you can find lots of resources for vintage stock photography.

By Orana Velarde