Photography: Courtesy fotoLibra
Building a portfolio of images is a little like creating an investment portfolio. It’s an asset that should continue to bring in revenue on a consistent basis throughout the life of the photographer. For top photographers that’s certainly true. Annie Leibovitz was able to borrow $15.5 million using her images as collateral in part because lenders the Art Capital Group recognized that her work would remain valuable enough to cover the loan. For more typical professionals, creating a stock portfolio is often an investment too, largely because it takes time to cover the costs. Ron Chapple, a stock photographer with more than 30 years’ experience, shoots with the idea of his image sales covering their production expenses within the first year or two of release, with profits coming in years three, four and five. For occasional photographers though, the situation tends to be different. Old pictures often end up not collecting regular sales on Getty or Alamy, or even on iStockPhoto and Dreamstime, but stashed away in albums or stored in forgotten folders on hard drives.
If you really could make money out of those old shots though, you might find that your photo albums are more than a collection of memories and a bank of images that make you proud. They’re also an untapped treasure chest.
That’s a hope that’s now being tested on fotoLibra. At the beginning of October, the UK-based picture library launched its Historic collection, a portfolio of images shot before 1980. Sold primarily on the basis of their age, the photos are intended to show how ordinary people lived during World War II, how people dressed during the seventies (something that most of us who lived through the period would rather forget) or what house interiors looked like in the 1920s. They’re pictures sold as snapshots of time as much as aesthetic compositions.
“Whatever the subject of the book, feature or article, a single contemporary picture can capture the period more precisely than a thousand words,” explains Yvonne Seeley, fotoLibra’s marketing director.
Photos from The 1970s Are History
While fotoLibra accepts just about all images submitted to the site, the company differs from microstock firms by charging customers full market rates for rights managed images, and by charging photographers subscription fees. The fees range from £18 per quarter to £45 per quarter with the different membership plans providing different amounts of storage space and a higher percentage of the sales price. Although Historic images will be made available for the same fees as other rights managed photos, photographers can upload as many old images as they want without a paid subscription. To qualify though, the photos must include at least the year they were shot and have been created before January 1, 1980.
The cut-off date is slightly arbitrary. Yvonne explains that anything more than thirty years looks like history to a lot of people. More importantly, anything shot before 1980 will not have been taken with a digital camera, making it easier for fotoLibra to monitor the uploads. That also means though that the images have to be scanned in manually, then uploaded. That could take a lot of slow work but considering that fotoLibra is supplying free storage and the chance of a sale, it might well be worth the effort. FotoLibra itself was created after founder Gwyn Headley found himself standing in the contents of a burst water tank surrounded by floating photographs taken by his grandfather, who had built his own camera in the 1890s, and his father, an army chaplain who had photographed Singapore in the 1930s, West Africa, Austria and Berlin in the 1950s and London in the 1960s. Almost all the photos were destroyed in the flood. Four years later, fotoLibra sees its Historic collection as a return to its roots.
Got a Picture of Florence Nightingale?
Whether the collection will offer more than a kind of floodproof photo album though remains to be seen. The company is still waiting to find out what type of images will sell the best, and the submission guidelines point out that images that date from later than 1950 will be easier to sell with model releases, although it will accept for sale images without them.
“We have the only known photograph of Mary Seacole who was a contemporary of Florence Nightingale working in the Crimea,” explains Yvonne. “There is no model release, and the image has sold numerous times for editorial use with no problems.”
Mary Seacole though is long dead and unlikely to complain if her picture turns up in a book about nineteenth century fashions. Your old schoolfriend might not be pleased to see a picture of himself in a book about how crazy people looked in the 1970s, and the publisher will know it. Without an image release, he’s likely to pass. And, of course, the Historic collection has to compete with the giant collections of old and atmospheric images available under Creative Commons licenses. Yvonne Seeley might be right in noting that a picture can describe a period much faster than a thousand words but if that’s all a buyer is looking for, there’s little reason for him to pay standard rights managed prices when he can help himself to the contents of Flickr’s Commons library for free.
The real value of the Historic collection then is likely to lie not just in very old photos but in very rare images — images as unusual as a picture of Florence Nightingale’s colleague or perhaps cars of the 1950s. FotoLibra is encouraging people with “special, extensive or unique collections of heritage imagery to let us know what they’ve got.” Those sorts of picture may even be able to demand a premium price. While there are benefits to be had then from making use of fotoLibra as free, safe storage for digital copies of your old prints, if you’re looking to save time and make sales, you might want to focus on the rare and unusual images. They might be old, but those pictures always sell.