Interview with Lanny Ziering
John's interviews of leading photographers regarding current trends and the future of stock photos.
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.
Do you see potential in expanding stock sales beyond the traditional buyers of stock?
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 to agencies?
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 photographers.
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 time.
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 campaigns.
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 stock photography?
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.