Stock photography's been the butt of internet jokes for years – and with good reason, mostly. When people decided they'd had enough of the uncanny, plastic-sheened falseness of the average stock image, they let the world know. We've seen iterations of stock photography's sterile scenarios turned into punchlines ever since.
Women-focused humour site The Hairpin kicked things off in 2011 with their caption-less photo blogpost of women laughing alone with salad, skewering the stock image trope of women so delighted to be tucking into a plate of leaves. Within a few years the blogpost had spawned an honorary Tumblr account, and in 2014 The Guardian's Women in Leadership website squeezed out the last few drops of fun with an earnest thinkpiece – by then it was probably too late to tell those responsible for this play in New York that they were about three years late to the party. You just have to enjoy the joke in the moment then, as with any other meme, file it away. At most, you can return to it in private with a chuckle, but for the love of god, let the thing go.
But not every stock image photographer sticks to the grinning in offices, city-skyline-at-dusk cliches. Caran Caravan, who made her start in the 1980s shooting and directing music videos for the likes of Marc Almond and space-rock band Hawkwind, switched to photography in the 90s and ended up selling photos of her own family to Getty Images, filling them with the sort of intimacy you don't normally find in stock image libraries.
Born Karen Bentham, Caran shoots exclusively on film, but isn't a pretentious idiot about it. Before an exhibition of her portraiture opens in Leeds' White Cloth Gallery on the 1st of March she spoke us about casting your own children in images for widespread use, selling those shots to one of the world's most prominent stock photography agencies and maintaining a sense of autonomy through it all.
VICE: You ended up at art school as a teenager but when did you start shooting photographs? Was it a hobby, or linked to your studies?
Caran Caravan: Oh no, I didn't get into photography at art school. That was about painting, finding identity and messing with heads. Photobooths in Woolies were the nearest I got to taking photographs – I didn't even own a camera. I started shooting seriously when I seriously started producing children. I ended up with three kids under 3, and it can get hellishly boring – with the best will in the world. Photography became an obsession and a user-friendly outlet for a dying creative. Two years later, in 1998, I was awarded a Fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society, with a submission of black-and-white auto portraits created using multiple negatives – a very hit-and-miss technique that is either fucking wonderful or a complete disaster. Either way, they were one-offs. No negatives, no reprints.
You were making videos for a while, after art school, before moving into portrait-based stock photography. What drew you to still photos, given your work with moving images? Why transition?
Time and circumstance, really. My love affair with the 35mm camera began due to constraints born within my commitment to raising a family. Video shoots take forever. Left to my own devices, and no deadlines, I set up a darkroom, hunted down the hippest kids in town, and started shooting – upstairs, downstairs, and in the ladies chamber. Working with video had already given me the skills needed for setting up good lighting and recognising striking images. The transition was natural and timely.
When was your first official foray into photography, then? Which set of images felt like the first ones that made you think "yes, this is something I could do to make a living"?
It was only last year, in June, when I had my very first exhibition at the Galleon Coffee Bar in Blackpool. Claire Griffiths from Alt Blackpool wrote a review and I suddenly realised I was quite good. She described my work as "beautiful but surreal" with "sadness, joy and whimsical faces staring back at us as we ask, 'who, where and when'?"
Having a critic define a tipping point is unusual, though. How did you make the move into stock photography on your own?
I my had three kids under the age of 3, as I said, and they were sitting ducks as stock subject matter, so to speak. I originally started submitting images to a company called Photonica and they signed me, which was cool. Photography equalled money. They were subsequently bought out by Getty Images, who put me on their books for several years.
What was it like being on Getty's books? Do you still own the rights to those images for example?
I have no idea if I have the rights ... I am the worlds worst at documentation, contracts etc. Sometimes they send me a cheque, haha.
You're clearly into 35mm film for your personal work. Were you shooting your Getty images on film too? What were the briefs like when they would want you to produce work for them?
Oh yes, I did everything on film. I have never used, nor will I ever use a digital camera. Film to the bone. I used to send Getty 10x8 prints, and they'd scan them and send them back. I stopped submitting to Getty when they stopped accepting analogue submissions. The digital camera they recommended I buy was about £11,000 at the time, and I thought, 'fuck that for a game of soldiers.' Haven't sent anything over for a long time.
The briefs they sent over when they wanted work were very specific, and well laid-out. I never really took much notice though, so I suppose the briefs were really only guidelines. If the brief was 'woman juggling career and baby,' I'd have my oldest son holding a screaming baby, mother nowhere to be seen.
How much freedom did you find you had with stock photography?
I sort of tweaked the briefs they sent, and more often than not got away with it. I'm not knocking stock photography – hell, there's lessons to be learned everywhere.
What about staging? The thing that makes so much stock photography so laughable is how transparent its setups look, while yours are more reminiscent of family photo albums pictures.
None of it was staged, really. I'd take photos and then find a brief to fit. That's the funny thing – I'm not really a stager. The plan is there is no plan. It's kind of like street photography, but not. I could never do 'street photography', because I'm too scared – and that's silly, I know. I can confront shop girls who serve me in WHSmith, and shoot awesome photos that very same evening of them, but I'm too scared to take a photo of a bin man on his round.
Did doing the Getty work ever feel corny? How did you consider the balance between it as art and as commerce?
Needs must, darling. I would happily post my Getty stuff alongside my other work, there's nothing to be ashamed of there. It all still takes time and thought. Not involved in that world anymore though – starving artist and all that, you know. Digital? Schmigital.
Caran Canavan's photography exhibition opens at White Cloth Gallery in Leeds on Tuesday the 1st of March.