The Rabbit in the Global Image Market

Jul 10, 2011 by

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The commercial images that we encounter every day come to us from a “visual content industry.” The largest of its companies is Getty Images, founded in 1995. Images sold by Getty appear on illustrated surfaces everywhere–billboards, newspapers and magazines, packaging design, corporate brochures, websites, calendars, greeting cards, stamps, and so on. The rabbit images for sale by Getty reveal how well positioned Getty is to purvey a particular view of rabbits.

The Global Image-Market

In the 1970s, stock photography (ready-made images) was increasingly available through stock photography agencies. These enabled an advertiser to avoid expensive photographic assignments by buying a pre-shot “visual” for limited use. In the 1990s, largely due to new digital technology, two multinational superagencies, Getty Images and Corbis, entered this market. They acquired the rights to the stock of other agencies, to old popular photograph libraries, news archives, private picture collections, and to the world’s fine art in museums. Critics have argued that Getty and Corbis have increasing power to dominate the picture-licensing trade and thus control “how we look at things.”

The Getty Images catalog is available on line at www.gettyimages.com. Its offerings of rabbit images are divided into two files. The “Editorial” file contains photographs with dates and brief explanations of the contents of each picture as determined by its original use. The vast number of rabbit images, however, is displayed in the database called “Creative,” an ever-growing electronic file of pictures of rabbits shown without context other than that provided by Getty. In spite of the huge number of these images-672 the last time I looked-the images sort into easily-identifiable stereotypes of rabbits.

The Rabbit as Cultural Stereotype

For example, rabbits-as-children’s-pets is one of two dominant themes. Of the 117 images that show a child or children with a rabbit or rabbits, only nine (.07%) include an adult in the scene. The file further strengthens the child-rabbit connection with pictures of stuffed rabbits as children’s toys, children dressed up in rabbit costumes, infant rabbits, and adult rabbits photographed as infant-like. A very few selections do seem to depict an emotional connection between a human adult and a rabbit. But these are so rare that they function as exotic exceptions that only reinforce the supposed normality of portraying rabbits as exclusively children’s pets. Magician with rabbit, rabbits as laboratory spec- imens, rabbit and tortoise, rabbits as prey are other well-represented stereotypes in the Getty database.

Critics argue that digital image-marketing has the power to reinforce stereotypes far beyond any other image-supply system. For example, the Getty file makes stereotypes easily available in technically glossy and attractive formats. It also encourages more production of the same stereotypes because they are presented as the successful formulas: photographers will want to copy the established image-types if they want to sell their wares; advertisers will use them if they want to sell their products. Indeed, what advertisers are apt to insist on is a fresh variation of a proven idea, something that feels cutting edge to the consumer but is also comfortingly familiar.

When one looks at the Getty Images digital catalog, one would think that every possible idea about rabbits is represented, because the file is so huge. But also, the meaning of the images is controlled by the way Getty suggests “recontextualization” or use of the image. Getty includes with each picture three columns of words labeled “Subject,” “Concept,” “Style.” The list under “Subject”for comks4022 (recently withdrawn), the model for the photograph that has been reenacted and then reproduced here, included the words “Child,” “Caucasian,” “rabbit,” “Easter,” “Easter Bunny,” “cheerful,” and “smiling.” The one concept-word for comks4022 was “Pets.” One can see how some of the subject and concept words express a verbal stereotype that supports the visual one, encouraging the client to use the most conventional interpretation of the image.

The Rabbit as an “Emoticon”

The images of rabbits in the Getty catalog pose an additional problem. The rabbits are used as “emoticons,” a word that combines “emotion” with “icon” (picture). The images are intended as delivery systems for feel-good emotions. A child with a rabbit needs to generate happiness in the viewer. The stereotype becomes not just a tired idea but a tired idea wedded to a positive emotional reaction.

Supporters of Getty say that it is after “evocative imagery” that creates a “powerful emotional resonance.” They point to the highly original emotive-concepts of Tim Flach, its award-winning animal photographer. Flach has not photographed a rabbit as far as I know, but he has said this about his photograph of a monkey: “I was working with that particular monkey for a concept called ‘energy’-a business concept” (quoted in Bainbridge, p.18). Critics call this “fabricating sentiment” and conclude that the goal is to com- pose “the visual trigger mechanism for producing a predictable emotional response-in short, crafting marketable emoticons…” (Kramer, p.155).

The Rabbit as “Studio Shot”

The Getty images of rabbits convey little about rabbits. The “studio shot” (the largest category) takes rabbits out of their living context. Even scenes photographed outside of a studio feel posed. In this way, “[p]hotographs come to stand not for real referents… but for their own value as images” (Frosh, p.642). In other words, the images are supposed to look contrived because their worth lies in their being conspicuous products of human invention.

Looking at comks4022, one might wonder under what possible conditions a rabbit would pop out of a picnic basket while a child looks on as if she was expecting the adorable thing to do exactly that. The scene looks artificial because the message is that rabbits need humans to make them interesting, not just to humans but probably to the animals themselves! Further, the picture says, “Without the human context, the rabbit has no meaning.” This has been described as an aesthetic (philosophy or theory of beauty) that reinforces the appropriateness of human power and control.

The House Rabbit Society as Alternative Image-Source

Photographs of animals can be problematic. Animals do not create representations, and these can never have meaning for them. Also, a representation is too often accepted as “capturing” the animal in some complete way. Rather, it necessarily reduces him to one human perspective, if only by emphasizing one thing over another. This is why a representation of an animal can easily become for some people more endearing than the animal himself.

Nevertheless, there is a difference between Getty images and those created by HRS artists. These are thoroughly contextualized as good-faith attempts to convey something about rabbits themselves. They often represent rabbits as agents in their living environments. Frequently appearing in HRJ and HRHandbook, they are part of a complex “picture-text” created by people with direct experience of rabbits and varying points of view. They work for the benefit of rabbits outside of the frame. Some even convey the impossibility of capturing the complexity of rabbit being. HRS images of rabbits are intended to express respect for rabbits. And I believe that they will continue to do so if we can resist settling into own stereotypes or valuing them as emoticons.

Julie Smith, PhD

House Rabbit JournalĀ Fall 2005/Winter 2006: Volume IV, Number 12

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