Alamy – Not a Cosmetics Company

 Another in our ongoing conversations with folks in our industry. By Michael Masterson.

Alan Capel has worked in the picture industry for over 25 years, first for Tony Stone, then joining Alamy shortly after its inception in 2000. As Head of Content he’s responsible for Alamy’s images and recruiting and managing its contributors. The site has more than 100 millions images from over 60,000 contributors and more than 600 picture agencies and collections. Alan is a published photographer, but prefers drawing to taking pictures and has co-authored four cartoon books.

Michael Masterson: I know your first job in the industry was at Tony Stone. Tell us a bit about that and how you ended up at Alamy.

Alan Capel: I joined Tony Stone Worldwide in 1990; it was a very special time at a very special company. I’d been working as a freelance cartoonist and illustrator but wanted – er, ok needed – a “proper” job. I saw an advert asking for an account executive and also a picture researcher. I actually applied for the account exec role because it was more money – I told you I needed the job! Thankfully the guys at TSW saw through my capitalist greed and told me I was far better suited as a picture researcher. Thank the lord they did.

I loved being a picture researcher in the pre-digital era when searching was manual using a light box, a loupe and a head full of filing codes to track down the right images. You needed a photographic memory and a great deal of tenacity. I wake up screaming the code for oilrigs even now. As luck would have it, the two people above me left, leaving me as head picture researcher a matter of weeks into the job, so I was learning a new set of skills and the “art” of management from the get go.

I was at Tony Stone when Getty came calling, setting up Getty Images by acquiring Tony Stone Images (as it had become). You could say the dynamic changed, it certainly evolved. We’d already started the shift to digital but the impetus from the formation of Getty Images accelerated it.

I’d left Getty to work at a start-up selling high-end photographic art on the Internet, but the world wasn’t ready for that. Alamy was in its early days and I joined in 2000. Why did I join? I loved that Alamy wanted to turn a lot of commonly held stock photography convictions on their head. I’d been brought up on a diet of edit and select, whereas Alamy wanted to let the market decide whether an image was saleable or not. Alamy also wanted to redress the balance in the favour of the photographer at a time when photographer’s percentages were being squeezed well below 50%.

I was also very impressed by co-founders James West’s and Mike Fischer’s enthusiasm for the opportunities that awaited and they’ve been proved right. Alamy and other businesses in our industry have developed and changed with the evolving cultural, economic and tech landscape.

North Korean people in front of Kim II Sung statue in Pyongyang North Korea. © Eric Lafforgue

MM: You’ve been at Alamy since the beginning. How did James and his partners come up with the name itself?

AC: Aah, the name! That’s probably the question I’ve been asked the most in my 17 years here. The name means nothing, well at least it doesn’t mean anything derogatory in any language and it begins with “A,” a prerequisite so it came up at the top of any alphabetical list. Hats off to 123Rf though!

MM: You were just at CEPIC. What’s your take-away about the general mood in the industry and where it’s headed?

AC: General mood is often very easy to gauge at these events. The number of attendees and the number of new faces that are present also influences it. I’d say the mood was mixed; many companies are living in fear of another power struggle at the top of our industry and have their own struggles to contend with. Downward pressure on conventional pricing was still a common thread. Others however see great opportunities to grow as we see more and more ways in which the creativity and value of images can be monetized. (Darn it, I was hoping to get through this interview without mentioning the M word.)

If I knew where it was heading I’d already be sitting there waiting for everyone else to catch up. Alamy has some exciting projects on the go. We are an agile business that can test the water as well as react quickly; forging the path to the future is a mixture of both.

A swimmer floating and snorkeling n a seaside pool. © Joe Wigdahl/Alamy Stock Photo

MM: What have been some of Alamy’s best-selling images of all time?

AC: I never like answering this question. Why feed a bunch of photographers with the magic formula to what you already have? I want to see people getting ahead of the curve and supplying images we don’t have. However, as you’ve asked, the best selling shot is a graphic of a world map. Thinking back to when I started in stock the best sellers always included a map. I guess the world is changing but at the same fundamentally is iconic and timeless. Other great sellers include a shopping basket, a duck billed platypus and a Knickerbocker glory ice cream. I bet you wish you’d never asked

MM: Where do you see Alamy headed in the next few years?

AC: Too many of our competitors, however friendly we all are in this business, will read this so I can’t really elaborate. Suffice to say, we don’t stand still and we are enjoying the challenges and opportunities. In my specific area of expertise and responsibility, the content and the content providers, I’m interested to see how the professional and amateur populations sit side by side.

How do we recognise and reward expertise and brilliance in the face of an ever-growing body of content? Part of our success at Alamy has been built on the volume of content we have but it annoys me when we get tarred with a brush that suggest we are just about mass. Who criticises Google for having every restaurant in the world listed? Within our 100M+ images we have verticals of imagery that meets all needs. Making sense of that and answering our customers’ needs is a challenge, but again we’ll use technology and smart decisions to solve that riddle. Visual media wise it’s an exciting time. Virtual Reality is mind blowing in its possibilities so I’m glad I work in this industry rather than one that may be rendered obsolete.

Little girl coming home from school on a rainy day. © Water Rights / Alamy Stock Photo

MM: Finally, what’s the funniest thing that ever happened at the office?

AC: We get some great emails from people thinking we are the cosmetic company Almay. But I think our favourite was when we did an April Fools spoof called “Psychic Search.” We filmed it in a lab and the basic premise was that we’d now cracked being able to read customers’ minds: they could look at a screen, think what they wanted and then the correct images appeared. That would have been handy back at Tony Stone!

I’ll spare their blushes but we had emails and conversations with more than one “industry figure” who fell for it hook, line and sinker….

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