Inside Offset, Shutterstock's Surreal, Millennial-Targeted Stock Image Brand

Offset is a high-end photo market created by Shutterstock. Featuring "curated" collections filled bearded men, microbreweries, and series titles like "Stache," the stock photo imprint may be even cheesier than Shutterstock itself.

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Nov 29 2015, 3:00pm

All photos by Bobby Viteri

"Look more laid back," Christina calls to the models, who are already lounging barefoot on the couch and holding oversized mugs of coffee. They adjust themselves so their knees lean into each other while they stare intently at a blank laptop screen.

"You're looking at a vacation property," the photographer, Andrew Zaeh, offers. "You're planning a vacation together." The scene already reads like how I imagine Ina Garten's friends spend their Sunday mornings, lounging in J. Crew style knitwear on an impeccable white couch. The details of the room all say, "Our only worry in life is choosing which gin to use in our evening Tom Collins." The coffee table—a thick piece of glass atop a pale petrified driftwood base—looks like something I saw on Goop.

"We know that it's hard to find cool, authentic pictures of gay couples. We want it to feel natural. We want it to feel real," Keren Sachs, Director of Content Development at Shutterstock, told me. To that end, the company has recruited models Harold and Andreas, a real couple who met at the Roseland Ballroom during Pride 2013 and got married a year later. The few knick-knacks that identified the apartment's real owner—a friend of the creative director—have been removed. For today, this two bedroom in TriBeCa is where Harold and Andreas spend their lives lounging on impeccable furniture and smiling vaguely at an iPad.

The photos are being produced for Offset.com, the high-end stock photo marketplace owned by Shutterstock. On Shutterstock.com without a subscription, two photos of an ice cream may be had for approximately $29. The photos are simple and clean—antiseptic scoops in triangle cones, cartons of ice cream in pastel colors. On Offset, "ice cream cone" yields a close-up of an artisanal-looking scoop, with honey dripping from inside its folds. The Offset photo costs $500 to download with maximum resolution.

Sachs watches the couple on the couch while Andreas improvises dialogue about their fictional vacation home in Greece. Sachs moves in to whisper to Lisa Curesky, the CEO of The Good Brigade, the company producing the shoot for Offset. "I think we should get a couple of them kissing."

Curesky relays the message to her partner, Christina. Christina turns to the models and the photographer. "Can we see a few of you kissing?" she asks. The couple obliges.

"See, that's not something you'd be able to do if they weren't a real couple," Sachs says with approval. Harold and Andreas keep kissing, probably with a bit more tongue than most advertising companies would want to use on a billboard. And that's where these photos might end up: Harold and Andreas are posing for stock photos, which means their images will be uploaded on the Internet and sold, royalty-free, for use anywhere—from billboards to magazines to websites—by anyone who might want their brand to be associated in some way with a handsome gay couple in a beautiful TriBeCa apartment.

Jon Oringer created Shutterstock in 2003. The entrepreneur taught himself to code and personally shot the first 30,000 images that were uploaded. Since then, Shutterstock has grown to over 600 employees, with over four images downloaded per second in over 150 countries. In 2014, Shutterstock's revenue increased 39% from the previous year to $328 million.

The site itself is a two-sided marketplace: media sites and advertising companies license images chosen from a pool submitted by any interested photographers.The photographers get paid a percentage that increases based on lifetime earnings with Shutterstock every time one of their photos is downloaded—and Shutterstock doesn't actually own the image. Sachs explained that photographers can apply to the site, and, "as long as we accept seven out of ten of their images, they're a Shutterstock contributor." Photographers retain copyright over their images, but Shutterstock is given full permission to market, display, and license the image to the customers on their site without final approval from the photographer. Last year, the company paid over $83 million to its roughly 80,000 contributors.

The Good Brigade put the TriBeca shoot together on a shoestring budget, shooting in a friend's apartment and using non-famous models found online who wore their own clothes. The photo studio is trusting Shutterstock's data: Sachs says consumers want more pictures of authentic gay couples, and The Good Brigade is delivering. And if the data is correct, The Good Brigade could stand to make a good deal of money from images that cost practically nothing to create.

When they aren't giving press tours, Shutterstock representatives have little involvement with image production. And, more interestingly, the company's review process has very little oversight when it comes to an image's content. Instead, Shutterstock is more concerned with the technical quality of the photograph. "We've got some pretty incredible review standards... We look at trademark, we look at lighting, we look at the overall composition," Sachs says. "We make sure that the technical quality of the image meets the demand of the customers." It's true: spend long enough scrolling through Shutterstock and you'll come across photographs of full frontal nudity or an overweight man in a dirty tank top with a lollypop in one hand and a cigar in the other—but the shots are always in focus.

Sometimes, however, that crisp focus is the reason discerning photo shoppers decide against using Shutterstock's images. I spoke to an employee (who asked to remain anonymous) at a late night television show that often uses stock photography about her perception of Shutterstock. "Shutterstock images don't always look natural," she said. "If we were looking for a picture of a birthday party we'd probably just try to take a photograph instead." Similarly, many have questioned the omnipresence of these images, such as a critical analysis of stock photos' evolution in Dis Magazine or the countless Tumblrs that mock these pictures.

"Stock photo" is an aesthetic all its own, one incredibly varied but immediately recognizable. The common tropes are generically attractive people with forgettable faces against white backdrops, but the photos often descend into nightmarish middle-management fever dream territory, which can be kryptonite to people looking for an image that looks real and original. Although it was never said explicitly, it's difficult not to see Offset as an attempt by Shutterstock to distance itself from the perception that stock photography exclusively involves cheesy images of gleeful businessmen and interchangeably attractive women.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

The contrast is sharp between the cornball general stock images and the ones found on Offset's site. If you are looking for an image of a businessman on Shutterstock.com you will find nearly an entire page of men in ties crossing their arms, almost all white, each expressing a look that screams their jobs require them to use the word "synergy" without irony. On the other hand, the businessmen found on Offset, under the tag "Entrepreneurial Spirit," include both old men with wise faces and attractive 30-year-olds working with their hands: as mechanics, bakers, cobblers, all political-campaign-commercial-ready Real Americans. The businessmen on Offset are also bearded or wearing plaid, pictured in collaboration with other attractive men—all seemingly the type of guys who have a section in their budget reserved for artisanal moisturizer. And with a second curated collection jauntily titled "Stache" featuring images of mustachioed men, the millennial-hipster aesthetic seems overtly intentional. "Let these images help grow your microbrew incubator firm, your farm-to-table bistro, your put-a-bird-on-it," they seem to whisper.

Unlike Shutterstock, Offset consumers aren't offered the chance to apply to contribute images to the site. Rather, the team at Offset have been reaching out to photo studios like The Good Brigade, but also professional artists and successful features photographers. David Prince has hosted his images to the site, scenes of abandoned hotel rooms and rain-clouded skyscapes that look like stills from music videos. His work is a click away from Anna Williams, a lifestyle photographer who's shot for Martha Stewart and has an expertise on macro shots of comfort food against dark wood rustic settings. "There were these artists who were never, never generating any money off their archives," said Sachs. "It just opened up a whole new door to us. I always say to every photographer I work with, 'Dust off your hard drives! You are sitting on so many images on your hard drives and you are not making money off them.'"

"On the consumer's part, there was an appetite to invest in imagery that was more like art," added Greg Bayer, the general manager of Offset, during a later interview at the Shutterstock office in Manhattan. "Things they could use more like hero images, front-and-center for their marketing campaigns."

"Let these images help grow your microbrew incubator firm, your farm-to-table bistro, your put-a-bird-on-it," the Offset photos seem to whisper.

While Offset's growth backs up Bayer's comments, there's still a slight tension watching the modern, supposedly authentic images being composed in real time. It probably has something to do with the executive from a massive online company smiling with closed lips a few feet away from a real couple making out in another person's real apartment. Every detail—the blanket draped across knees, the jacket hanging off the back of a chair—was curated to create a distinctly un-curated vibe. As I watched the hot gay couple kiss in the nice apartment I was struck with the realization that the scene already looked like an ad—maybe even a good one.

On June 21, it was announced that Shutterstock had partnered with Penske Media Corporation (PMC), the media company that controls outlets like Variety, Deadline, WWD, and HollywoodLife. In addition to becoming the official photo archivefor all PMC-sponsored events, Shutterstock gained access to PMC's archives to offer their customers countless new images. PMC CEO Jay Penske decided to partner with Shutterstock over Getty, its rival in the stock photo industry, because he "saw a better opportunity in aligning the PMC brands with Shutterstock, which we believe to be the ascending platform for imagery and video," as he told Financial Times. "We were also troubled by Getty's current financial condition, because of its excess debt/leverage." The partnership represents another major step in Shutterstock's effort to diversify its brand identity and not be known just as the go-to source for cubicle workers to fill out their PowerPoint presentations with pictures of other cubicle workers.

I asked Sachs whether her company is aware of the connotation of the word "stock photo" on the internet and beyond, where words like, "silly," "artificial," and "why is that woman so happy to be eating salad?" might come up. There was a slight pause. "We definitely have a sense of humor about things like that," Sachs said, not entirely sounding like she did. The team at Shutterstock pointed to a collection they published after Jeb Bush's super PAC released a video ad in which scenes of Bush's idyllic America were actually stock photos of England and Southeast Asia, as highlighted by The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and a variety of other websites. The collection, called "Safe for IA and NH," contains photographs of freshly painted barn doors, waving American flags, and apple pie, all taken by photographers from Iowa and New Hampshire. The joke is mild and charming while possibly suggesting the company's hyper-vigilance regarding its own portrayal in the media.

According to Shutterstock's data, mobile submissions for the site grew 40% in the first six months of 2015. The unique combination of social media and high-quality phones in our pockets means people are exposed to more pictures of "real life" than ever before. But while the photos for Offset might resemble "real life" more closely than their stage-set counterparts found in general Shutterstock.com galleries, they still portray a world far cleaner and happier than our own. The world of Offset is Brooklyn before it became a punchline, a service trip to India without anyone rolling their eyes, families of beautiful, bright-eyed children who are curious about the world and never cry.

Once Zaeh has gotten enough photographs of the couple on the couch he moves them to the bedroom. Andreas sits in bed, under the covers, while Harold pretends to get dressed at the foot of the bed. Once again, at someone's suggestion, the couple kisses, leaning across the mattress to lock lips, a moment made to look like an impromptu morning show of love before a husband leaves for work. And then to the kitchen, where Howard sets the table and Andreas cuts tomatoes for a fictional dinner party, the type you'd expect to include fashion columnists and festival-favorite indie directors. Andreas wields the knife with staccato, karate-chop hacks.

"No, no, that's not how you chop," Howard says, leaving his post to take the knife from his husband's hand. "This is how, you have to roll it, front to back." He demonstrates.

Soon, someone else will ask Andreas and Howard to kiss again, and they will, among strategically placed wine glasses. But that moment, the couple playfully bickering about the best way to cut tomatoes—half eye-roll, half-smile—was the closest thing to a real couple I saw all day. And it was still corny.

Maybe stock photos will never transcend their known inherent aesthetic, their stock photo-ness. But by creating imprints like Offset and partnering with PMC, Shutterstock will have such a big stake in selling photos for ads and of celebrity events that the visual format is the company's for the taking.

Harold and Andreas are the face of the future of advertising: a cost-effective option for companies looking for a sanitized, real-but-not-quite-real America that's just diverse enough to make us feel good enough about ourselves to keep buying Advil or Cheerios or Depends. And they're the face of the future of stock photos, a game that's changing and expanding right beneath our noses. We'll likely still know Shutterstock for the same hokey stuff as always, but its fingerprints will surreptitiously be everywhere.

Follow Dana on Twitter and see more of Bobby's photo work on his Tumblr.

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