Issue 1 Invented Languages Winter 2000/01

Stalk Photography

Gregory Williams

He’s all face and no name and he’s been the bane of my existence for over a year now. A full-frontal square-jawed yuppie with a bulbous forefinger jutting out over the street, this human cipher sucks in all the winds of anxiety that blow down Seventh Avenue and sends them through my window. With his holier-than-thou expression, tasteful black turtleneck and air of financial stability, I have thought of him as Vance.

But today is a day for rejoicing. The construction workers just lifted Vance from his perch, revealing him to be nothing more than a plywood-and-plastic cutout of a man, mere billboard ornamentation. And he wasn’t alone. For far too long the scaff- olding across the street from my apartment has supported a heterogeneous cast of characters, including a friendly Asian- American woman on the corner, a Dalmatian dog, a cat, two or three couples of various ages and ethnicities, an African-American woman, and a white man who presided over the corner of Seventh Avenue and 25th Street until today. Their home has been the Chelsea Mercantile, just one of countless “luxury condominiums” to spring up in Manhattan in recent years. Products of our obscenely fast-paced economy, these buildings represent—at least to those of us with more moderate incomes—a constant reminder of our tenuous status as island dwellers.

Vance has been a constant companion since last summer, when construction went into full swing. My desk faces windows that look out onto Seventh Avenue and any time I looked up from my computer screen I was met by his withering gaze. Having stared into Vance’s eyes for so long (like the Mona Lisa, they follow you around the room), he became something of a barometer of my sense of self-worth. In certain moments of triumph—after finishing an essay or meeting a deadline—he made me feel like “the man.” I could almost picture him reaching across the divide of the street to give me a high-five. At other times, however—while experiencing writer’s block or procrastinating—his aggressive pointing gesture might be read as outright condemnation and/or taunting disapproval. Yet of course no matter how deeply Vance has insinuated himself into my life, I hardly know him at all.

This comes as no great surprise since Vance belongs to that ever-growing segment of the population: the stock photograph model. We see them everywhere, from billboard advertisements to magazine illustrations and web-site thumbnails. Typically they are so generic in their poses, so utterly banal with their standardized facial expressions, that we hardly take note of their presence. They are meant to look familiar and, at the same time, to disappear behind the significance of whatever product they are promoting. Indeed they are so unremarkable that the term “stock photography” does not appear in a single index of any of the major photography history books I consulted. This is a terrain that reeks of obviousness and would hardly seem to warrant serious scholarly consideration. Yet the very ubiquity of stock photographs at least begs reflection on the way that they clutter up the visual field and subtly stimulate desire.

Or sometimes not so subtly. The particular gesture of Vance, also known as the Pointing Man, is openly assertive, even aggressive. The model that plays Vance has a pronounced forehead and chiseled features that suggest a man who means business. His upraised right arm is bent at the elbow and held in tight to the body, so that his clenched fingers form a muscular ball out of which the offending digit protrudes. Staring daily into his eyes, I began to wonder what kind of message the Rockrose Development Corporation intended to get across. Obviously they wanted to project financial stability and give a signal to other professional types that the Chelsea Mercantile was a hot ticket in the world of condominium living. But were there other motivating factors that might explain the low-grade hostility emanating from this sign? My unwanted proximity to Vance clearly called for a little investigative journalism.

The first call I made was to Cantor and Pecorella, Inc., the sales agents exclusively representing the developers. Agent Kathleen Scott confirmed that the images on the scaffolding were chosen based on demographics; they wanted to have as diverse a group as possible. Asked what Vance’s role in the line-up might be, she claimed that he was there to present a “hip, downtown look.” This gave me pause. What is particularly downtown about him? Okay, he’s wearing a black turtleneck, but the beatnik era is long since over and black turtlenecks are worn across the country. No, it had to be something else. It had to be his hair. Cut stylishly above the ears with just the right amount of teasing, Vance looked like a brunette who’d been given a frost job. Yet what really set him apart were his eyebrows. In the black-and-white photograph their blond coloring merged with his skin tone to make them appear to be shaved off. The effect was disconcerting: the more I looked at him the more he seemed a cross between a Goth and an alien, both of which might, in fact, qualify for hip and downtown.

Next on the list of contacts was Lanny Lambert, co-owner of Chavin and Lambert, a New York-based ad agency. They had conceived the project to decorate the Mercantile’s “shed,” (the trade name given to the construction of scaffolding, wood planks and electric lighting that protects pedestrians walking next to a building site) and so I figured they’d have some insight into Vance’s origins. Mr. Lambert had little patience for my line of questioning, though he did put a different spin on the gesture. He explained that they were looking for stock images with implied motion, a suggestion of the three-dimensional, as if the figure were “pointing out the features of the apartment.” This interpretation backed up Ms. Scott’s claim that in tracking the number of walk-in visitors, they found that the highest percentage entered the building in response to the sign. Vance’s forceful finger-jabbing now needed to be thought of as cheerful beckoning.

While pondering this new angle on my neighbor, the ugly side of the shed zoomed back into focus. It was an extremely blustery day in mid-January, with the winds howling down the street and office workers struggling to hang onto their briefcases. Speaking on the phone with a friend, I was absentmindedly gazing out the window when a massive gust of wind unhinged the friendly Asian-American woman from her corner post and flung her far out over the intersection. Had someone been standing in the wrong place in the crosswalk, he or she would have been brained by a flying stock photograph—a most unglamorous death. The Mercantile’s workers quickly hustled her off to the side of the building and all lawsuits were averted. Four months later I saw a pair of pliers drop through the shed planks onto the sidewalk, narrowly missing a man who barely stopped long enough to acknowledge his good fortune. I can only imagine how many other near-disasters took place while I wasn’t looking.

But a more happy coincidence soon followed. A graphic designer friend who had seen Vance from my apartment, called one day to say that she had found his image on a CD-ROM full of stock photographs of people. Within minutes she had e-mailed me his picture along with a series of thumbnail shots of him in different poses. And here I saw even more sides of Mean Man, Sarah’s moniker for Vance. Far more than a confrontational jerk, he could be alternately coy, puzzled, pensive and bored, among several other comparatively positive traits. Why did I get stuck with a year’s worth of aggression? Which forced me to pose another question: Was there not some- thing to be gained from the prolonged encounter with Vance? What is it exactly about him that made me feel intimidated and threatened?

The shed at the Chelsea Mercantile was designed to speak to two seemingly contrasting impulses: a desire for domestic comfort and a determination to conquer the world. These needs are opposite sides of the same coin that has formed the currency of life in Manhattan at all points in its history, but especially at the present moment. When fused properly, high-end domesticity and global-economy profiteering can produce a thoroughly shrill expression of self-entitlement. The LED sign that greeted southbound drivers on Seventh Avenue left no ambiguity regarding the success of the Mercantile’s clients; one message that scrolled across periodically stated something along the lines of, “We’re installing state-of-the-art gourmet ovens, not that you’ll ever use them.” To have one’s supper at, for example, Pastis, the heart of Meat-Packing District hipness, while dreaming about one’s unused, but always shiny and available, kitchen unit, is to know that one has made it. The construction sheds serve the valuable purpose of separating the losers from the winners in the battle over property rights.

The condition of being powerless over real estate in New York might at first be thought of as analogous to the lack of authorial control possessed by the stock photographer. Whether entirely dependent on the needs of the marketplace or giving up royalty rights to image suppliers, the producer of stock photographs is unlikely to become a household name. Yet this is scarcely the goal in the first place. As the experts Ann and Carl Purcell write, “It is important that you sell your pictures to make a profit and not for the satisfaction of seeing them in print.”1 Here they are writing about the traditional stock photographer, the person who one day shouts “Eureka!” while looking through old snapshots: “Pictures that stay in your files or on your shelf in yellow boxes may be worth thousands upon thousands of dollars.” Thus the importance of authorship becomes a non-issue as monetary gain outweighs the benefits of attaching one’s identity to an image.

I began to wonder how the system really works. Who was responsible for the first step in Vance’s journey to my neighborhood? I called Photodisc, the Seattle-based company that distributes heaps of such pictures to all corners of the world and onto the Internet. Paul Norlen, a kind staff member, explained that they were not the actual image-makers and put me in touch with CMCD, the client that had created Vance. Founded in 1993 by Clement Mok, a graphic designer in San Francisco, CMCD was among the pioneers of the latest revolution in a not-so-revolutionary field: the royalty-free stock photograph. The scourge of the industry, these images cost the same amount whether they are used for a freeway billboard or on a web site that gets ten hits per month. Furthermore, once buyers purchase either a single photograph or an entire CD-ROM, they can use them as many times and in as many contexts as they choose, all for one fee. CMCD and its competitors are despised by the legions of stock photographers who have long relied on years of residuals flowing in from old work. As the enormously helpful Carrie O’Neill described it, they were one of the first companies to remove the photograph’s background and leave spaces open within the picture (newspapers and books, for instance) in order to better accommodate the insertion of their images into carefully chosen scenes or to facilitate the inclusion of other elements in their own pictures. In other words, they were established to take full advantage of digital culture.

Stock photography had always been perceived as the embarrassing relative of fine-art photography, as the form whose name should not be spoken. Then along comes digital technology and the trade attains another level of hyper-reproducibility. With cheap images in high demand for web sites and home pages, the Internet made it more lucrative for a company to sell pictures singly and in CD-ROM collections for multiple applications without needing to pay royalties or renegotiate usage fees. This lead stock agencies to seek out less expensive models in order to lower their production costs. As is common today, Vance was given a reasonable one-time payment for posing before the camera, with no option to receive royalties and, of course, no control over the placement of his face. Ms. O’Neill explained that her models were all found either on the street or by asking friends for recommendations. Once deemed photogenic, they had to fill out “humongous” release forms before entering the studio. This was the first time I properly considered the fact that Vance may not have even been aware of the Chelsea Mercantile or his role in promoting its development.

While recovering from this rather obvious revelation, the saga took a new twist that forever altered my relationship with Vance. Imagining the prospect of meeting my nemesis, I asked Ms. O’Neill if she could put me in touch with the model. Before she attempted to contact him, however, she gave me enough information to completely undermine my conception of the Mean Man. At the time of the original photo shoot, “Vance” had never modeled and was working as an oyster farmer in Tomales Bay, California, a mere two-hour drive from my own hometown. Besides being one of the nicest people they had ever worked with, she described how he had sung a beautiful rendition of “Day-O” while they had applied makeup to his attractive face. Naturally it was a little disappointing to find out that he was not the CEO of an Internet startup or an executive film producer. How could I possibly hate a singing oyster farmer?

I finally reached him yesterday. He is actually called James and we had a completely un-Vance-like, half-hour phone conversation. James told me the story of his work with CMCD. Two years ago, having had no serious modeling experience, a photog- rapher friend called him at the last minute to participate in a photo shoot in San Francisco. James barely made it through the heavy Bay Area traffic in time for his turn. Arriving somewhat agitated, the staff responded to his energy and the session went well—perhaps the stress he felt found its expression in the Pointing Man shot. Other details had been provided by Ms. O’Neill: his hair color is natural, he has very striking features and he is a joy to be around. Today James no longer trolls the waters of Tomales Bay; he has gotten into other lines of work, including a fledgling modeling career with an agency and a portfolio (I’m sending him shots of the shed to supplement it). He and his wife work extremely hard to support their young daughter and neither of them benefit from the vast wealth that permeates much of the Northern California coast. James is skeptical, though not pessimistic, about the prospect of making a living from his looks. His involvement with stock photography has simply opened a door to one possible career option; he has no illusions about the odds of becoming the next big thing.

During my chat with James it became clear that in spite of its cheap artificiality and shameless commercialism, stock photography is one of the purest forms of realism. By this I mean that its reception is intimately attached to everyday, lived experience; one almost never voluntarily views a stock image as one would a painting in a museum. We happen upon them and they help to define the parameters of daily existence in a way that is rarely matched by acknowledged works of art. Indeed, it seems almost pointless to discuss these ubiquitous pictures in any other form than through the telling of an anecdote. Of course one can elaborate on the mechanisms of the marketplace, the means by which the stock photograph participates in the system of commodified desire and, most recently, how digital technology has “a single, but glaring, flaw: lack of exclusivity.”3 But what really matters is how Vance affects my trip to pick up the laundry or my reading about current events in the newspaper.

If the traditional discussion of realism within visual culture centers on the construction of the image, on examining the artist’s attempt to avoid worn-out, formal clichés and say something relevant about contemporary social conditions, I would propose reading the stock photograph as always-already-constructed. The interesting thing about these pictures has less to do with how they came into being than the fact that they are such powerful empty vessels. Once in circulation, they are infinitely capable of taking on the wealth of meanings ascribed to them by the passerby or reader. As much as the advertising agency endeavors to project a particular message about the product of its client, the stock photograph’s proximity to all aspects of turn-of-the-millennium life guarantees that they will be interpreted in a highly unpredictable manner. James has had relatives and friends from around the globe tell him they’ve encountered his image in all kinds of random places. The more his portraits proliferate, the more versions of James there will be to describe. As any short stroll through any city will demonstrate, the world is full of fake characters like Vance who get in the way of real people like James. Which is not to say that Vance does not actually exist and won’t continue to haunt my dreams. But at least now Vance has a competitor: his name is James and I’m sure he would make a very nice neighbor.

  1. Ann and Carl Purcell, Stock Photography: The Complete Guide (Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 1993), p. 2.
  2. Ibid., p. 1.
  3. Joe Farace, Stock Photo Smart: How to Choose and Use Digital Stock Photography (Gloucester, Massachusetts: Rockport Publishers, 1998), p. 18.

Gregory Williams is an art critic and historian living in New York. He is an editor of Cabinet.

Cabinet is a non-profit organization supported by the Lambent Foundation, the Orphiflamme Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, the New York State Council on the Arts, the Katchadourian Family Foundation, and many generous individuals. All our events are free, the entire content of our many sold-out issues are on our site for free, and we offer our magazine and books at prices that are considerably below cost. Please consider supporting our work by making a tax-deductible donation by visiting here.