Curation vs Search & Less Is More

December 2, 2017

#metadata #stock photography #stocksy

Magnum Photos, Old Street, London, August 1991
Magnum Photos, Old Street, London, August 1991

The summer of 1991, researching for my degree dissertation, I interned at Magnum Photos’ London bureau. That was the first time I consciously thought about the importance of metadata – captions, keywords, categories etc – the who, why, when, where, what and how. There was a fairly rudimentary catalogue structure in that pre-digital, pre-search era. The collection comprised drawers of transparencies and prints in labelled boxes. Each image individually captioned. Often the same images would be duplicated under different labels. For example, there was a photo of Fidel Castro with Ernest Hemingway in the box labelled ‘Cuba’. The same image also in another box labelled ‘Beards. But it would have been impossible to have a box for every potential keyword and finding the right image for a client was really about the talented team of Picture Researchers knowing very well the relatively small and very special curated collection.

Royalty Free stock is at the other end of that business and is typically about simple visual metaphors – the business handshake, the team etc. Crowdsourced RF stock photography took off in the 00s when DSLR cameras became affordable and with the arrival of ubiquitous broadband. There was a huge demand for cheap stock images. Some of my own simple images made tens of thousands of dollars each. The new online only agencies were quickly able to undercut the established giants (Getty Images ended up buying iStockphoto in 2008). Shooting new contemporary looking digital images was cheaper than laboriously scanning and captioning dusty old film. Licensing images for relatively little money made sense when the photographers could make it up on volume. But within a very few years there was a significant oversupply of images. The agencies could still shift volume but photographers found it increasingly difficult to compete. Oversupply drove prices ever lower and many of the agencies began to switch to subscription based models in an attempt to lock in revenues – especially as growth began to slow.

Crowdsourced stock at the big sites is often more or less a free for all today. There is relatively little curation and the photographers typically supply their own, often very spammy, metadata. It can now be difficult to find the right stock image at the big sites. Metadata is useless when so many images have the same keywords. A search for “brunch” at Shutterstock, for example, currently returns over 200,000 photos as I found when I was looking for a few images for the front page of The Naked Brunch. Though many, even at the front of the search results, are completely irrelevant. Keyword search seems increasingly less useful when content is not also curated. No algorithm has fixed that so far and search results also often seem to be self perpetuating since most users will not search more than a few pages deep. In the 00s agencies would boast about how many images they had – today less really is more.

I was quickly able to find the right images at Stocksy which is a co-operative based in Canada, which takes a refreshing alternative. A limited number of photographers supply carefully curated content. Typically that means much better search results. From a buyer perspective it means not having to sift through thousands of irrelevant images. These are released images for business uses, it is not an editorial agency. But there is a refreshing authenticity and style about the collection. It’s a return to quality over quantity.

The Naked Brunch

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