Stock

A long time ago, when I accidentally became a designer, I had this book. It was probably about the thickness of an issue of MacUser. On every page of this book sat twenty or so very small photographic thumbnails. The precise content and composition of each image was difficult to make out, but the cheap glossy print gave you a kind-of-gist of what you were looking at. Corresponding files for each thumbnail (various sizes of JPG and TIFF,perhaps even a GIF or two) lived on a CD-ROM that lived in someone else's desk that lived on another floor of the building. These – and only these – were the pictures I was allowed to use.

The charity I worked for had spent precious, precious cash on this stock image disc. We had paid for the right to use these pictures, and gosh darn it we certainly weren't going to pay to use any more. So, for every piece of printed matter that left our offices, imagery came from this limited pool. The selection was constrained further by the fact that the breadth of subject matter in the book and on the disc (Hospitals! Nurseries! Construction sites!) made all but a few of the images completely useless for our needs. There were two, maybe three pages of pictures I came back to time and time again.

And that's where I met her.

Among the pictures of tweedy-looking teachers tweedily teaching what were almost certainly tweedsome subjects, there was a series taken of the same young woman. The images weren't particularly remarkable, but they had the distinction of being just right for pretty much any brief.

There she was, in her hat, casually strolling across campus on a golden autumn day. There she was, in her hat, contributing to some kind of seminar group. There she was, in her hat, lost in thought with pen poised at chin and eyes a-wander. She epitomised the studious, sociable, sober ideal. The model student, the student model.

The few files we had of her were used a lot. Far too many discussions ended with "yeah, so we'll just go with the girl in the hat". But after a while, it started to look like she was our official mascot, or that we were only serving the needs of one very particular individual.

Still, she was a friendly, reliable face and she gave our literature a nice tone. But then she started turning up elsewhere. Brochures with her face (and hat) would come in from other organisations. I started seeing her all over the place. Apparently we weren't the only ones with that disc, the only ones with that page bookmarked.

She was on book covers with titles as diverse as They Don't Want to Die, Backpacking With God and The College Student's Guide to Eating Well. She was the face of Dell, Microsoft, Greyhound. She represented the Canadian, Greek and British governments. Her be-hatted antics were so rife that she'd even picked up a weird kind of following on the web, with people cataloguing her appearances. She was even given a title: “Everywhere Girl".

This was back in the days of flying toasters and growling modems. The world was still one-point-oh. Everywhere Girl had become a meme before the idea of memes had become a meme. To those familiar with the pictures, her appearance betrayed a tired and transparent attempt to nail a particular gender/racial/age ideal to a concept.

(For an exceedingly concise account of Everywhere Girl’s adventures, check out The Inquirer's archive of her many, many sightings: http://tinyurl.com/evergirl.)

Stock photography has changed significantly since then. Long gone are the books and the CD-ROMs (as well as that other person and their desk), the improved bells and whistles of the internet enabling a much wider choice of images and swifter means of acquiring them.

Microstock services such as iStock and Shutterstock bridged the previously overlooked chasm between clip art and premium stock. With a shifting model of contributors, customers and uses, the type of available photography changed. We no longer need one particular be-hatted young lady upon which to hang a multitude of ideas – the cycle of mass-market supply and demand has lead to a new array of self-perpetuating, recycled concepts. The Huffington Post kept tabs on this cornball visual lexicon for a while with its This Week in Ridiculous Stock Photos series: Distracted People Chopping Vegetables; Women Ignored By Men Over Tech Gadgets; Business People Using Megaphones; etc.

These things aren't just in the hands of us handsome designers any more. With a growing consumer market turning to this cheap supply of stock photography, these simplified, repetitive concepts are becoming ingrained in, and erosive to, our culture. Our picture of the world is being broadly sketched by stereotypes and crude artifice. As amusing as it is to spot yet more women laughing alone at salad, their collective existence is something that should be challenged. It may be an improvement on one girl representing everything everywhere, but this sort of homogenous stereotyping isn't going to do anybody any good.

But just as Everywhere Girl's ubiquity made whatever context she was placed into an immediate cliché, overfamiliarity will see these tropes pass and be replaced by others. The latest sea change may make it's way down to the microstock market from Getty and Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In initiative. Their new joint endeavour is a collection of images devoted to “the powerful depiction of women, girls and the people who support them".

One does get the feeling it's just a new set of clichés-to-be (the world really doesn't need this many pictures of women using tablets next to windows), but it's a commendable attempt to create a more contemporary and realistic depiction of the subjects, and will hopefully eradicate those done-to-death images of power-dressed stiletto heels stamping on things.

Would like to see more hats though, just for old time's sake.

Written for MacUser.

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