Lanny Ziering Interview:
Lanny, I know you as one of the founders of Blend Images. Now you are CEO of
SuperStock. Can you share with us a little of your background and how you came
to be SuperStock’s CEO?
Well, it’s sort of a kidnapped-by-aliens story. I picked up my first camera when
I was about 8 or 9 and pretty much had one in my hand all the way thru high
school. I was the photo editor of my high school yearbook and determined to go
to Art Center, but I kept looking at pictures taken by guys like Irving Penn,
Richard Avedon and David Bailey. The more I looked, the more I thought my own
pictures were total crap and would never get better. So, I sold my enlarger and
my Nikon F, gave up all hope of ever meeting Jean Shrimpton, and went to UCLA
where I eventually got an MBA.
After B-school I had a bunch jobs of including working at MTV right after it
launched. Eventually, I went to work at a TV station in LA as the program
director. Here’s the part where the aliens kidnap me and I spend 7 years working
at PricewaterhouseCoopers in global consulting projects for energy companies and
long distance carriers. Fast forward to 2002: IBM buys the consulting business
of PricewaterhouseCoopers. I was either pushed or I jumped (depending on who you
believe) and before hitting the ground I decided that I wanted to turn back the
clock to the summer I graduated from high school.
I couldn’t do much about all my gray hair but I decided to pursue a career in
photography. Looking back, it seems like a totally insane notion. However,
something very odd happened. A friend producing short programs for a cable
network, Fine Living, hired me to shoot stills and we used Avid editing software
to animate the stills in a Ken Burns sort of way. I bought a new Canon D60 and
never looked back. It wasn’t long before I met Lawrence Manning, a very talented
stock photographer. We partnered on a bunch of stock shoots and pretty soon
royalty checks started arriving in the mail.
Long story short, I went with Lawrence and Beautiful Betty (Mallorca) to a
little meeting of about 30 stock shooters in Las Vegas. Blend was born at that
meeting and Rick Becker-Leckrone asked me to help with the formation of the
company. I spent the next four and a half years working with Rick to realize his
vision. Then we started to wonder, “What do we do next?” A small group of us
started kicking ideas around at the NY PACA meeting and Gustavo Baez tossed out
the idea, why not buy Superstock?
Why not, indeed. Alan Bailey (from Rubberball) and I flew down to Jacksonville.
We woke up from the dream walking out of Federal bankruptcy court having out bid
Steve Pigeon for Superstock. In a bloodless ceremony I was anointed Superstock’s
new CEO. It was all a bit unreal. In the finest tradition of the stock business
we all went out to dinner that night with Steve, drank a lot of wine, and agreed
to distribute each other’s content. Is this a great industry or what?
SuperStock was purchased in Bankruptcy court. Can you fill us in on the
ramifications of what SuperStock has been through and how that will affect it’s
photographers and clients?
Superstock has been through a trauma. The employees are an amazing bunch and,
despite what they have been through, they continue to believe in the company.
Virtually every photographer, client, image partner and distributor decided to
keep doing business with Superstock. Ownership of the company is back in the
hands of photographers; Morgan Stanley and the financiers are gone.
Superstock is once again a place that is about the photographic image and those
who create those images and those who use those images to communicate.
What do you think are the strengths of SuperStock?
Superstock has three essential strengths. First, hundreds of contributing
photographers around the world who supply images to us. This has produced an
extraordinary collection of fine art, vintage, travel and scenic, and
contemporary imagery. Second, a large base of loyal clients in publishing and
advertising. Third, a very talented staff that works every day to bring
photographers and clients together.
What are SuperStock’s areas of vulnerability?
I could tell you but then I’d have to kill you.
What is your vision for where you want to take SuperStock?
Our plan for Superstock is pretty straightforward. We are stabilizing the
company so we keep the content, clients and staff that make Superstock a great
agency. We’ve pretty much completed this phase. Now we’re optimizing the
company’s image assets and relationships. It’s no secret that the Superstock was
not very well led in the last few years and there’s a lot we are doing to get
more images to market and make it easier for clients to find the images they
need. We’re going to compete by continuing to offer clients a unique collection
of fine art, vintage, travel, and contemporary imagery along with a deep
understanding of how those images are used.
Do you have any plans to incorporate Micro stock into your mix?
We’re looking at many options but I don’t think Micro will be the first thing we
Do you see potential in expanding stock sales beyond the traditional buyers of
Consumers are the Holy Grail, I suppose. Consumers seem to have a never-ending
fascination with celebrities, so there will undoubtedly be new ways to download
shots of Miley, Madonna, Rihanna, and next week’s it girl. I can also envision
consumers who would enjoy looking at images of fine art, distant locations, and
historical events. This is where we’ll be well positioned to serve that market.
There is a lot of buzz in the photographic community about the lack of concern
large agencies have for the individual photographer. Is the economic viability
of the individual photographer important to SuperStock? Should it be important
I can’t speak for other agencies, but Superstock places great value on the
individual photographer. After all, the owners of Superstock are photographers.
It’s in our DNA. Blend has certainly proven that an agency can succeed by caring
about the success of photographers. We can’t succeed unless our photographers
succeed. So we’re creating a very close relationship between our sales people
who talk to picture buyers every day and our editors who talk to photographers
so they will know the subjects that will sell.
Agencies like Getty are constantly reducing the human interaction with
photographers as well as clients. Is that something that is inevitable and
necessary, even for SuperStock?
We think a lot about how to increase the interaction between our editors and our
One of SuperStock’s offerings is subscription. Can the subscription model work
for photographers as well as agencies?
Different clients have different ways they like to buy pictures. Some have no
problem paying $20,000 for the perfect image to go on a can of beans and others
need to download a hundred images a day to put in a blog for butterfly
collectors. Photographers and agencies need to find ways to make money from
either type of client.
I am under the impression that the market for stock images is moving away from
print and more into the internet as the print world shrinks and the online world
increases. Is my impression accurate? If so, does this present a problem in the
lower prices charged for internet use?
True, there is a shift from paper to pixels. I think it is too early to
precisely predict the future shape of the internet market for images. Right now
internet audiences are pretty fragmented but as they become more concentrated
there may be an opportunity to charge more for compelling images. On the other
hand, the nature of print and the internet are different. A powerful image is
probably the key thing to attract a customer to buy a magazine or to stop and
look at an ad on a page. But internet browsing is ironically less visual and
more text driven than print so images may not have quite the magnetic power (or
economic value) they do in print.
Along those lines, do you think the pricing structure of RF stock images, and I
suppose Micro, needs to change? Do you think it will change?
Pricing is alchemy. Get it right and you turn lead into gold. Get it wrong and
you turn gold into lead. Nominal RF prices might look like they are rising, but
there’s a lot of evidence that overall RF prices are falling (dare I say the
words “Premium Access”?). At the same time prices are rising in the micro space.
Macro and micro appear to be converging but prices won’t ever meet. Certainly,
the 1 to 100-price ratio of two years ago will continue to shrink.
Does the increasing use of video threaten the market for still Images?
Video will grow, that is inevitable. But there is nothing that has the power of
a still image. My generation was shaped by TV, but every major event in our
lifetime is defined by a still image. When people think of the Vietnam War they
think about the image of the man being shot in the head by the guy in the short
sleeve shirt or the napalm-scarred girl running down the road. When we think of
the student revolution on Tiananmen Square it’s the image of the guy with the
plastic shopping bags in front of the tank. I believe it was actually shot in
video but we remember it as a single frame. And the defining image of Barack
Obama is that stolen shot used in the “Hope” poster. I don’t think anything will
ever replace the way a still image allows us to do what life denies us: stop
Do you see SuperStock offering video?
Some are predicting a radically different world of stock images in as little as
five years. Do you see any big changes on the horizon?
One thing is for sure: search doesn’t work very well for anybody so look for
innovations in how agencies enable clients to search for images. I’d also expect
a convergence between stills and footage, perhaps packages for integrated
Do you have any advice for the veteran stock shooter?
Talk to people who buy pictures, find out what they want, go and shoot it.
Do you have any advice for photographers who are just entering the field of
As William Goldman said about the movie business, “nobody knows nothing”. Learn
everything you can about photography and advertising and journalism and
publishing and then let it all go and listen to your instincts.