Stock in America

George Marks, one of the first photographers to provide pictures on demand, helped forge the business of stock photography.

Photographer George Marks rented studio space for many years in the same Fifth Avenue office building where Joanna Ferrone, founder of Index Stock Photography, also happened to be a tenant. They met once sometime during the early ’80s in the elevator, but when Ferrone mentioned her fledgling agency to Marks, the quiet octogenarian suddenly grew livid. To her surprise, he began lecturing her on the do’s and don’ts of shooting stock. Ferrone had no further dealings with her feisty neighbor, and he remained somewhat of a mystery.

In 1985, however, she was notified that Marks had died, and she decided to relocate her growing company to his studio. His collection of photographs, housed in a row of massive iron filing cabinets, was too cumbersome to move out. As Ferrone sifted through the collection of prints—thousands of black-and-white images spanning nearly 40 years of continuous work—she realized that Marks had been a prolific and pioneering figure in the history of stock photography. “It was just incredible,” she remembers. “The amount of work and the quality and the historical reference it provided. Nobody could stop looking at it.” Within days, Ferrone purchased the collection from the photographer’s estate.

Aside from the images that Marks left behind, little is known about him. He was born in New York City at the turn of the century, and in 1928 he founded The Black Box, a commercial studio on Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan. Equipped with a mammoth Deardorf portrait camera—a dark and box-like wooden contraption that inspired the name of his studio—he began his career as a photographer in earnest. An astute businessman as well as image maker, Marks became one of the first photographers to recognize the growing need for photography-on-demand and to anticipate the requirements of his clients with a stock of ready photos of popular subject matter. His company served as a model for the dozens of other stock agencies that would later emerge.

During the early ’30s, commercial photography in Manhattan was a thriving business. Advertisers, editors, and designers realized that a picture was indeed worth a thousand words—both actual or implied—about a product or specialty or service. However, finding a commercial photographer who was competent enough to convey a specific message was an expensive and often difficult proposition. Outside of New York and other large metropolitan areas in the East, it was nearly impossible.

Then, as now, many people were drawn to Manhattan to try and break into modeling. They came from the surrounding boroughs and from small towns in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and many of these hopefuls were Marks’s early subjects. Some, like actress Ann Blyth, went on to achieve celebrity, or like Georgia Carrol, became famous models. Even Harry Conover, who later established one of the city’s most successful modeling agencies, frequently posed for Marks. The majority of his models, however, were chosen not for their glamor, but for their ordinary appearance. These everyday people often showed up at the studio as the result of a chance referral. Some were simply coaxed in from the street. Even today, these portraits present a look of homespun honesty and credibility that offsets the exaggerated and often artificial poses.

In exchange for their work, models received a series of head shots and other prints for their portfolios and, on rare occasions, modest payment. Seeing an opportunity to increase his earnings, Marks required that his models release full rights to the future reproduction and distribution of the images for which they posed. In this way, he was able to accumulate in a short time an impressive collection of images that could be resold to different clients. He filed his work under such categories as “travel” and “business,” and later expanded his listings to encompass a surprising range of headings like “grocers,” “underwear,” and even “depilatories.” By 1931, The Black Box was offering these photographs to small advertising and design agencies, newspapers, calendar printers, and other clients along the East Coast.

And over the years, Marks was to sell many of these images repeatedly. His photos of diligent factory workers, contented housewives, fatherly men reading newspapers, and lovestruck couples offered photographic testimony to the severity of a sore throat, the efficacy of a product, or the convenience of a new appliance. A shot of a doctor posed against a simple black background is a typical example. The middle-aged man has a stethoscope draped authoritatively around his neck, and his mouth is open as if he were about to utter an important diagnosis. The photograph was bought by a pharmaceutical company in 1936 for a business report, used by two ad agencies in direct mail campaigns for life insurance, and turned up subsequently in a newspaper in Boston, then in a Connecticut tabloid. It was purchased again by a Baptist church for a fund-raising appeal, and was finally sold in 1957 to a Manhattan drug manufacturer for a testimonial advertisement.

While many of the early stock companies offered material reflecting diverse styles from a range of photographers, Marks continued to work as a one-man agency. For this reason, his collection retains a uniquely coherent character. The models, the clothing, and the subject matter changed to reflect the times, but Marks’s style remained constant. The homebound women of his early photos appear during World War II in factories, and in peacetime, they are portrayed side by side with their husbands both at home and in offices. In the 1960s, portraits of the nuclear family give way to young, independent singles. The cultural changes they reflect are an important chronicle of American tastes and lifestyles. What’s more, they reveal the skill with which advertisers and designers used such Monographic images to help create those tastes and attitudes. As the eminent photographer Irving Penn once noted, “The photographer uses to advantage the human prejudice that the camera does not lie. But if the camera does not lie, it equally does not tell the truth.”

In December of 1940, Life magazine ran a photo essay on Marks that gave nationwide exposure to his Black Box studio and launched the most productive decade of his career. The article portrays a dynamic photographer, surrounded by a complicated array of lighting, and in the background is his ever-present portrait camera. Marks is dressed in shirt and tie, and with his sleeves rolled up, he appears hard at work, gesticulating wildly to his model. The article shows the numerous and often ingenious ways he was able to interpret an everyday subject—in this case, a woman’s legs—through his lens. “A conscientious man,” the copy reads, “George Marks goes around thinking of different ways to photograph legs. These photographs show what trouble a man will take to satisfy his art.” They also document how Marks shot stock—a method still used by many studio photographers today.

Marks generally worked with an individual model and a few simple props, which he developed into myriad scenarios. In one photograph, for example, a sweaty-browed employee leans over a desk that is scattered with ledgers and papers. He has the frazzled, despondent look of someone on the verge of a nervous breakdown. In the next shot, the model sits at the same desk, only it has been cleared of papers, and he is conversing on the telephone. His look of despair has been replaced by one of cool business savvy. Marks’s ability to capture a range of emotion, despite his cumbersome portrait camera and lengthy exposure times, is evidence of his skill in working not just with people as well as with cameras.

The majority of Marks’s stock images were produced in his studio at 126 Fifth Avenue, where he could maintain total control of a shoot. Extraordinarily precise lighting is characteristic of these interior settings. Marks later purchased a Speed Graphic portable camera that allowed him to do location shots in and around the city. However, many of these images lack the refinement of his indoor work, and it is clear that he preferred the studio to working outdoors.

The economic prosperity generated by World War II spurred not only Marks’s prosperity but also that of many other small studios. While hiring a freelance photographer was still preferable, smaller clients often sacrificed quality and creative control for the convenience and expedience offered by stock. Stock agencies representing these new studios became firmly established as a resource for photographic material. The Frederic Lewis Agency, which opened an office in Manhattan in 1938, was one of the first to publish catalogs of its holdings. Although the poor printing quality and design rarely did justice to the work they reproduced, the catalogs were a convenient way for prospective clients to browse through available work.

The Freelance Photographers Guild, or FPG, was also growing. Managed by publisher Arthur Brackman and born of his frustrating and unsuccessful hunt for a cover photograph for Trips magazine, the FPG had been founded in 1936 to seek out talented amateurs “from every corner of America” and distribute their work to magazines and advertisers. Brackman estimated that of the nearly three million noncommercial photographers in the country, many were shooting quality material that could be sold as stock. Photographers could join the Guild for a small fee, and in turn, FPG would act as their agent. Brackman’s company amassed a comprehensive and diverse collection of pictures and began to market them with some success.

Despite its popularity with less ambitious art buyers, stock photography remained a dirty word among sophisticated art directors and designers throughout the 1950s. Many advertising agencies referred to it as “on-spec” photos and when they did use the word stock, they were careful to surround it with quote marks. Stock agencies were considered a second-rate source for images, something to turn to out of desperation, or when a deadline left no alternative. Nevertheless, Marks’s images and those of other photographers continued to appear in print—albeit, sometimes indirectly. As the use of illustration became increasingly popular in advertising, stock was commonly requested as reference material for artists.

By the early 1960s, however, designers began to look back with disdain at the staid images used so frequently in previous decades. Such postured photography was clearly dated, and during this period many small photographers like Marks saw their businesses decline.Despite a growing demand for color photography, Marks stubbornly continued to work with black-and-white, and still employed his outmoded portrait camera. He survived on such mundane commercial assignments as product shots, and his exhaustive collection of images was relegated to storage in filing cabinets for occasional but infrequent sales. The stock industry as a whole continued to stagnate until the mid-1970s. In 1971, several top commercial photographers formed an alliance called The Image Bank and began to market their work aggressively to mainstream art directors and advertising agencies. The crude catalogs of early stock agencies were replaced with slick color volumes that looked like coffee-table books. As other companies followed suit, stock photography finally made a place for itself as a legitimate creative resource.

In the decade since Marks’s death in 1985, stock photography has continued to evolve at an accelerated rate. A 1994 Graphic Design: USA survey of designers and art directors found that nearly three out of four of them used stock in their work. Marks’s pictures and those of other early photographers have also experienced a revival– the Marks collection is currently owned by Getty Images and can be viewed and purchased at Vintage images continue to sell even after 50 years.

“When I show vintage work to designers, it naturally strikes a chord. So many of them grew up in that era,” comments Jessica Brackmart, daughter of the founder of FPG, and currently its chairman. She has watched FPG grow into a major resource for contemporary stock, but she is also pleased at the renewed interest in the older images her father collected. Brackrnan believes that designers turn to vintage stock because of the nostalgia that such photographs evoke. “They have a spirit, innocence, and humor that’s unique to America,” she says. “As our culture becomes immersed in imagery, as we encounter the growing visual chaos of modern-day life, these snapshots from a bygone time feel comfortable and safe.”

“I think it goes beyond nostalgia,” says Patrick Montgomery, president of Archive Photo, a collection of more than six million vintage images. “The great design—industrial, fashion, graphic—that has come out of the last five decades is part of our vocabulary and these pictures immediately speak to us in that language.” Unlike some of his competitors, Montgomery continues to search out additional collections of early stock. “There is a vast amount of interesting material out there,” he asserts, “the work of photographers we haven’t yet discovered.”

Joanna Ferrone still reflects on the good fortune that led to her discovery of Marks’s work and The Black Box. “Over a span of 40 years,” she says, “Marks was able to create a portrait of life in middle America the way he saw it—through the eyes of a single photographer—looking through the lens of his black box.”

This article was originally published in Print Magazine. © Philip Krayna.