Warped Image

“Dark” stock images are eerie but all stock images are dark

Earlier this year, through some algorithmic control not of my own, I came across the Twitter account Dark Stock Photos, perhaps the strangest collection of commercial detritus on the internet. The account, which has over 150,000 followers, pulls some of the grimmer shots from sites like Getty, iStockphoto, and Shutterstock, recontextualizing them into something far more bizarre than intended: Sobbing children with pistols are collected alongside photos of theft, kidnapping, suicide, abortion, all filtered through the distinct visual language of the stock photo.

Latching on to the smallest unit of surrealist comedy, one-track, single-purpose “meme” accounts constitute a genre of their own. The Twitter account Cursed Images features photographs with nothing in common besides the sensibility they’re gathered under, and often elicit a strong feeling of unwanted intimacy with either the subject or the person taking the picture: a staircase full of Furbys; a baby grinning next to a meat grinder; a person in an Elmo costume waving from a bed with a retirement-home aesthetic. The more palatable Faces in Things features anthropomorphic angles on everyday objects, which are hard to un-see. Through simple, often one-line concepts, these spaces create a context that allows caption-less (or minimally captioned) visual jokes to explode into the broader consciousness of the internet.

Stock photos have always seemed a little eerie, no matter what they depict; they are purely affective gestures, void of the visual difference that sets most photos apart

The internet is full of junk — visual static we don’t notice or vaguely avoid. The stock image itself aims, and fails at miscibility. Stock photos have always seemed a little eerie, no matter what they depict; they are purely affective gestures, void of the visual difference that sets most photos apart as unique. In that way, an account like Dark Stock Photo is more of a fine-tuning of what makes the form so jarring to begin with. As Vic Berger’s grimly comedic video edits did for coverage of the 2016 election, or the comedy duo Tim & Eric did for cable-access television, this comedy works by isolating the already absurd within what attempts to pass as normal. The humor works on a gut level but, in a space marked by the tension between the scrolling pace and the extraordinary contents of the average feed, there’s also something gleeful, or satisfying, about foiling such a conspicuous attempt to pass unnoticed.

The internet changed stock photography, whose roots in advertising date back to the 1920s. Where once buying the commercial rights to such photos meant spending thousands of dollars on images with limited placement potential and careful agency oversight regarding their use, the rise of high-speed DSL connections and a more visual internet meant that images could now proliferate at an unprecedented pace. Their airbrushed aesthetic overtook the changing digital landscape, helping to fill the gap between the looks of online and of analog media, and bridging the text-based ’90s internet with a new, more image-rich browser experience. With stark backgrounds, high-contrast artificial lighting, and a certain flat, all-in-focus-ness native to early digital photography, the stock photo has, with time, achieved a strange visual unity.

As it became increasingly easy to duplicate digital files indefinitely with only minor losses in quality, commercial agencies were forced to scramble with solutions in hopes of retaining intellectual property rights on their photos. Meanwhile, a new generation of “microstock” photography sites sought to secure the rights to cheaper, more abundant digital photos designed with commercial web placement in mind. Often powered by hobbyists, sites like Shutterstock and iStockphoto offered a new legal path for digital photography rights, one that prioritized high-volume output from photographers paid on a per-photo basis. In a 2007 New York Times feature on the subject, Eric A. Taub notes that “microstock prices can be as low as 25 cents, and payments to photographers are even lower, often not much more than pennies per sale.”

Long before Uber and Airbnb and the rise of precarious, low-wage digital labor, microstock platforms churned out millions of near-identical images in the rush to secure footing in the new, highly-profitable visual landscape of the web. As the expertise of agencies continued to give way to the creative labor of contractors, an oddly specific slickness emerged through the form itself, one that, rather than stamp each photo as the unique creation of an independent-minded photographers, instead makes visible the broad economic constraints behind its labor. Dark Stock Photos and the many similar blogs that predate it feel like responses to this bottom-line imperative to produce: With such high-volume output essential to make a living, photographers are encouraged to be both as prolific and attuned to clients’ needs as possible.

Today, stock images have more traction as jokes and historical relics — awkward artifacts of an earlier internet, which reveal the specificity beneath aesthetics that strove for timelessness

At its center, the stock photo is an ad for itself, selling a digital file to web designers while offering the pretense of a certain marketable universalism in the greater context of the site for which it was purposed. Commanding attention in visual hyperbole, yet eager to mask any elements of visual difference, photos like “Firm Handshake Between Business Associates” and “Beautiful Young Woman Eating Vegetable Salad in the Kitchen” achieve a certain timeless, spaceless utility in the rift between commercial interests, finding a bizarre, blemish-free homogeneity at the point of maximal profit. This universality is of course heavily fictionalized: In 2015, many writings on the clear absence of minority representation in the field noticed a distinct relationship between stock photography’s attempt at airbrushed anonymity and its implicit affirmation of the many gendered and racial stereotypes so prevalent in the material world. Asked by Hannah Giorgis about the emergence of his startup BlackStockImages, founder Kenneth Wiggins noted that while there are “resources out there that have images of black people,” he was unable to find “the attitude and the emotion [he] was looking for behind the pictures.”

In the last few years, it’s been increasingly rare to find a site that really uses stock photos in earnest — at least in this mid-aughts microstock sense — especially with similar options available from sites like Unsplash and Adobe Stock for free (and with much more diverse and inclusive representation). Today, stock images have more traction as jokes and historical relics — awkward artifacts of an earlier internet, which reveal the specificity beneath aesthetics that strove for timelessness. Early efforts to document the implications of stock photographs, like the Hairpin‘s “Women Laughing Alone with Salad,” feel dated themselves, styled as wry feminist statements presented without comment. But the stock photo’s aim was always contradictory: It’s laughable that such a simple, frictionless formula could ever be thought universal. Part of what makes Dark Stock Photos so memorable is the subtext that each photo represents an attempt to render terrible situations in a smooth, Muzak-like visual grammar.

As artists and mememakers increasingly pastiche and parody the goofy banality of the late ’90s internet, Dark Stock Photos seems like just the latest punchline in the ongoing clowning of an earlier, simpler era. But the jarring outliers of Dark Stock Photos represent some of the more outlandish attempts of photographers to reach the untapped needs of an audience who could be looking for anything. Photos of domestic disputes and juvenile delinquency have clear commercial connections (albeit pretty tasteless ones), but for a number of those collected by the account, it’s still far from clear just what the photographer had in mind beyond filling a void with microstock companies. “A few may have been slipped in by a photographer as a joke,” Andy Kelly, who founded the account, wrote in the Guardian, “but I get the sense that most of them were taken in earnest. The more I think about that, the funnier they are.”

It’s hard to look at the pictures without imagining a quota, and a desperation to meet it, that can feel as disturbing as the image itself. The stock photo’s hyper-normative insistences, always eerie enough, are only made more absurd by this seeming misusage. “Dark” stock photos, more than their subject matter, speak to the turbulence guiding their own creation — highlighting the contradictory impulses at the heart of a shift between physical scarcity and digital abundance and the repercussions for intellectual property rights, as well as the daily realities of precarious digital labor.

Rob Arcand is a freelance journalist and culture writer based in Brooklyn. He writes about music and aesthetics and has appeared in Tiny Mix Tapes, Thump, and the Quietus.