There’s always been this problem in stock photography that the best images remain with people who care very little about licensing them to you. Often if I wanted to get some great stock pictures I would call photographers directly and ask them to go into their files and pull the contact sheets and send them over. The problem with doing this is that it’s an enormous pain in the ass for them and if there’s a chance the pictures wouldn’t be used or someone might try to use them very small or the story would be killed then I’ve suddenly ruined my chances of pulling stock with that photographer the next time around.
When I heard about Trunk Archive (website here) last February and saw the list of photographers who’s work they represented I thought how great this will be for photo editors and art buyers to source and use high end imagery. I had the opportunity to talk with Matt Moneypenny the President and CEO of Trunk last week and here’s what we talked about.
Matt, tell me about the beginnings of Trunk Archive?
Trunk Archive was started in a kitchen in Copenhagen 3 years ago by 5 high end Danish art collectors. They were saying to each other “wouldn’t it be great if we found a way for fine artists to manage their licensing themselves?” Their idea was to build an archive and website that would allow fine art photographers the ability to post, manage and administer their own archive. It was a passion project for them and of course 3 years ago the economy was in a very different place. They ended up spending about a year and a half building their idea and it cost around 1.7 million to develop it, but they came to realize that the original business model was unsustainable. A friend introduced me to the Danes and they offered to turn the software and the business over to me to run as I saw fit, from NYC. It was too exciting an opportunity to pass up. I had been at the archive at Art + Commerce for several years, and before that I was an agent at ICM in Los Angeles and London.
What are the differences between Trunk Archive and Art + Commerce Archive?
Art + Commerce is tied to their assignment roster with a few notable exceptions. I always felt that this was a much bigger business. At Trunk Archive we can license the archives of any photographer from any agency. In fact we work very collaboratively and comfortably with all of the photographer assignment agencies.
That leads to my next question which is about dealing with high end photographers and subjects and how that leads to complexity in licensing because you have the photographer, publicist, model and agent all involved and it’s always just a big mess. How do you solve that and make it easier for the clients to do deals?
Yes, there are restrictions when working with art at this level, but everyone is also interested in the opportunities afforded by well-managed image licensing. Think of the artists who have most permeated the public consciousness. Warhol is my favorite example. When people begin to collect art, the first work that they often seek to acquire is a Warhol. I would say that’s because of the power of licensing. His work has been actively licensed and thus seen in a huge way. One way to brand build for these photographers is to make sure that their art is seen in Korea, Taiwan, South Africa and so on. It’s increases the perception that these are the important artists with incredible talent – who are at the forefront of the medium. Licensing does that.
There seems to be a real problem with advertisers using this type of imagery because many times you need approval from celebrities or models because the work is not model released. How do you address this?
It’s definitely an extra layer of work but it’s all about the relationships that you have with the people that represent the subjects in the pictures. Due to my years at ICM I know all of the PR and movie studios. I know what an agent’s concerns will be and what will be required to get a particular image approved. On the model side it’s about about having a relationship with the principals at the agencies and understanding that an agent needs to protect the brand and image of the model. We work to gain their trust, as we will generally be negotiating the fee for their model on their behalf. We also work closely with each photographer’s assignment agent as it’s important for us to know what existing contracts each photographer has in place.
So why don’t more A list photographers make their imagery available as stock?
For a long time there was this preciousness surrounding an artists archive. In addition, licensing existing work was a far more labor intensive process. Now you can upload and download high-res files in seconds. A big part of this process is making the artist comfortable with the people that are handling his or her archive. We hand negotiate every single transaction and always ask the artist about every license before agreeing to send any file to any client. We are very protective of our artists.
Why do you think there’s an opportunity here to make money on stock and certainly why in this economy?
I think that most stock agencies do not promote individual artists and their archives, something that we do quite well and with definitive results. No matter how great the work is it’s not going to sell itself – you need to get out there and bang the drum. We are aware of the importance of customer service – we do free research, we give free comps to clients that we know, we’re reachable at all hours of the day. Service has been a big part of our success. We have over 5,000 global clients and i think that it’s the level of service that we provide that keeps the list growing. I have a substantial budget for sales and marketing trips. We just spent 2 weeks in London, Paris, Warsaw, Moscow, Milan and Madrid. I am leaving in two weeks for Scandinavia and early next year we’ll travel to Delhi, Shanghai, Singapore and Sydney. In most markets around the world high-end licensing is still a more hand carried service. In Spain it’s guys on vespas with laser prints zipping around showing the new work to clients. That’s not uncommon in many markets around the world.
Now, is that because these are emerging markets?
No, mostly I think it’s cultural. In France they still want to see the work – they want to touch it they want to hold it. They don’t just want to look at lightboxes on a website.
In this economy is stock a solution to saving money and cutting risk on original shoots?
I certainly hope so because that’s part of what I’m banking on. Our business has been growing healthily this year.
Are you adding photographers to the archive?
Yes, there are a few who have recently come aboard that are not yet online – like Philip Lorca Di Corcia, Raymond Meier, and Dewey Nicks. There are still a few photographers out there who create the type of imagery we believe in. We’re interested in representing them but there is definitely an end point. Right now we have roughly 62 photographers but I don’t really see our roster growing to much more than over 100. There are only so many artists that create work at this level. We don’t want to be Corbis or Getty. We will always be a high end boutique service.