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I wish I could put up a YouTube video to answer that question. I’ve found how-to videos for almost everything, including how to make buttonholes using my new electronic sewing machine. That was tricky, but not as tricky as finding and getting the rights to use an unusual or historical image.

Need a picture of a happy family or a snowy forest path or Nixon resigning? No problem. There are infinite options. More specific shots of, say, teatime in England or children in a Ugandan hospital can be licensed on sites like Getty Images, which offers 200 million visual assets in hundreds of categories, including news, entertainment, sports and “creative,” with collections as esoteric as “car culture” and “untitled X-ray,” which tantalizes with white-on-black images of translucent flowers and plants.

But what if I need teatime in a particular English village or children being treated in a specific hospital in Uganda? And my client doesn’t have the budget to hire a photographer at a day rate plus airfare and expenses? For some designers, social media is making the world of available imagery (and talent) as close as their iPhones.


More and more designers are finding their visual assets on Instagram. Poulin + Morris, a New York design consultancy that creates signage and environmental graphics for leading institutions around the world, is just one firm broadening its search methodology. The images for an exhibit at Vassar College’s Integrated Science Commons—which displays tools and artifacts alongside photographs of scientists and labs—were researched by designers on Poulin + Morris’s project team and came from sources ranging from National Geographic to iStock, according to design director Richard Poulin. For a project for American Society of Landscape Architects, however, Poulin turned to his mobile phone. He had an image in mind of a 1920s Rodchenko mural in Moscow—but its quoted use fee was above the nonprofit client’s budget. So he searched for the mural on Instagram via hashtag. “A local photographer had taken a perfect shot and licensed it to us for a fraction of the price,” Poulin reports. 

Nancy Lerner, principal of Otherwise Incorporated, a Chicago firm that specializes in branding for real estate clients and civic organizations, takes professional use of social media one step further. “The whole process of commissioning photography has been flattened and simplified,” she states. “After the advent of cheap and free stock, clients didn’t want to pay for photo shoots. But now we’re commissioning more original work than we have in years. That’s because we can source talent on Instagram or Tumblr and art-direct long-distance on FaceTime.” Lerner says she can find a photographer almost anywhere who will shoot precisely what her clients need and send proofs instantaneously via text message.

For some designers, social media is making the world of available imagery (and talent) as close as their iPhones.”


Historical images are a different story. When Lerner’s firm needs, for example, vintage images of a neighborhood for a real estate client, a staffer or an intern will be dispatched to sources like the Chicago History Museum and the archives of the city of Chicago. “Picture research is people-intensive,” she says. “It’s time-intensive, but there are all kinds of great images squirreled away. You have to get out there and find the people who have them and talk to them. There are more dead ends than live paths. It’s a treasure hunt. You have to love the hunt and go where it takes you.” 

“We’re often challenged with finding an image that we’re not even certain exists,” adds Samantha Osborne, marketing manager at the Rantoul, Illinois–based exhibit design firm Taylor Studios, Inc. “In obtaining obscure imagery, persistence and creativity is key. More often than not, we can’t fulfill our needs with stock. While we may begin on Google, we call upon museums, libraries and historical societies and search out local resources, like borrowing and scanning 35mm slides from a retired hobbyist.” For a timeline installation in Alaska about North America’s tallest peak, Denali, and the pioneers who first climbed it, Osborne says that the imagery came from the Anchorage Museum, companies that make climbing gear, Flickr, the Library of Congress, a local library, personal websites and the photo albums of mountain-climbing legends.


One of the most comprehensive image databases is in the Library of Congress, in Washington, DC, all of which may be searched online and downloaded for free (though it’s up to the user to track down the copyright owners and get permissions). “We have preserved and provide access to nearly sixteen million photographs, drawings and prints from the fifteenth century to the present day,” writes Barbara Natanson, head of the Reference Section Prints and Photographs Division. “International in scope, these visual collections represent a uniquely rich array of human experience, knowledge, creativity and achievement, touching on almost every realm of endeavor: science, art, invention, government and political struggle, and the recording of history.”

To test what I could find there, I devised a theoretical assignment: a photograph of the Watts Towers for a book about 1950s Los Angeles. I searched the Library of Congress Digital Collections—“no results found.” Really? Did I do it right? I tried again. Still nothing. So I switched to Google Images. Before I could finish typing in Watts Towers, hundreds of beautiful shots—many from stock houses and some from individual bloggers—of the rebar structures decorated with broken crockery popped up. I quickly found a high-resolution image on a travel blog that surely could be licensed for a reasonable fee. But what I really wanted was a photo of Simon Rodia, the towers’ artist. A new Google search took me to a black-and-white photo taken in 1950 by Sanford Roth, in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. I clicked on “Order Photography” to open an online Rights and Reproduction Order Form with more than 30 questions: Contact information. The purpose and usage. Date of publication. Number of copies. I filled it out and, at the time of this writing, am still waiting for a response. 

Over the years, I’ve learned from my husband, a trademark and copyright lawyer, that almost everything created prior to 1978, such as the portrait of Rodia, probably doesn’t have a copyright notice. If it was created after that, I have to track down the owner and negotiate the rights. Otherwise I might get sued. Designers routinely pull the images they need for mockups off Google Images or Pinterest, but, as almost everyone realizes, these images may not be used in a real brochure, book, ad, exhibit or film. “You can swipe as long as the image is only used for a comp,” warns Elizabeth Resnick, professor at Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston. For her recent book, Design for Communication, she didn’t allow reproduction of anything—even as part of a collage—that the designer couldn’t guarantee was her or his own original work. “Without signed permission, we can’t use it,” she asserts. “I’m ferocious about that.”

Designers routinely pull the images they need for mockups off Google Images or Pinterest, but, as almost everyone realizes, these images may not be used in a real brochure, book, ad, exhibit or film.”


Getting sued by copyright owners is not on anyone’s to-do list. So for a project that requires many images—and for which there are no willing and ready staffers or interns—wouldn’t it be awesome to hire a professional to undertake the search and negotiate the rights? It would be, if you could find the right person. Several folks who formerly used the title “picture researcher” have changed career focus or shut down. 

The last holdout may be Richard Kroll. Born and raised in Hollywood and a University of California, Los Angeles, history major, Kroll got his first job from the Eames office, researching images for exhibitions. He worked on Richard Saul Wurman’s series Access Guides, then spent seventeen years as director of information services at brand consultancy firm Siegel+Gale, building an internal resource library, commissioning and searching for images, and negotiating permissions. He’s still at it. He opened his Nyack, New York, firm in 1978 and has built a client list that includes major brand identity firms and film studios. Among his notable projects was uncovering the footage and still images used in the title sequence chronicling the aftermath of the Khomeini regime for the feature film Argo. “I have access to intel and sources way beyond the Google radar screen, way beyond the usual archives and resources,” Kroll claims. “Why use me? I dig deeper. My clients work smart. Just because they’re connected to the Internet doesn’t mean they can do everything themselves.”

“Richard’s research incorporates the written word, photography and film,” says cinematographer André Andreev, creative director at the New York–based animation and film studio Dress Code. Andreev calls on Kroll when he needs something particular to a time and place. “He’s got a holistic sense of the whole project. From him, we don’t only get an image, but deeper knowledge of where it came from, the context. He’ll get us everything ever written about someone.” 

Andreev has found this especially useful when making music videos and documentary shorts like “Emory Douglas: The Art of the Black Panthers,” created to honor the 2015 AIGA medalist, whose powerful images became icons in the struggle against racism and injustice.


There are those who specialize in old images and those who search out the newest of the new. 

Based in San Francisco, Catch&Release is forging a whole new business model. Clients include the major ad agencies and brands that crave real-time authenticity that photo shoots can’t capture, according to Analisa Goodin, Catch&Release’s founder and chief executive officer. Previously a creative content manager at Goodby Silverstein & Partners and director of photographic research at a history museum, Goodin started the company because, in her words, “clients like Apple, Nike and Patagonia are sensitive to subtle shifts in culture.” What’s uploaded to YouTube today is more immediate than anything that could be set up in a photo shoot, and no models, sets or crews are required—or all that time, she explains. Goodin hires freelance curators to hunt down raw, youth-culture images and video clips on social media sites. Thus, clients get what they covet, and amateurs and hobbyists are reborn as cinematographers. That’s the “catch” part of the firm’s name, which can be experienced in Twitter’s “See What’s Happening” spot, Lenovo’s “Anthem” and Advil’s “What Pain” commercial. The “release” part is, as usual, contacting the copyright owners and negotiating the rights. 


Don’t have the budgets of major advertisers or film studios? I asked Sean Adams, former AIGA president and executive director of the graphic design graduate program at ArtCenter College of Design, where he’d recommend designers turn to in order to get images they can’t find at stock houses. He took me full circle: “The Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, the Los Angeles Public Library, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York Public Library, historical societies and university archives,” he answered. “Of course, making your own images is always best.”

And if you do that well and post them on Instagram or YouTube, who knows? Those images might end up as part of a history exhibit or in Nike’s next commercial. ca

Suggestions by André Andreev of Dress Code NY

How do you present an assignment?
We start with doing preliminary research ourselves to find out who and what we need. For example, we’re currently working on a short film about Bob Wilson, a soccer goalie who played for Arsenal in the early ’70s. We approached our researcher, Richard Kroll, with that information and the assets we need to source—in this case, photography, video clips and news articles.

What is the process like?
Researchers usually take one to three days to get back to us with a preliminary set of findings. At this stage, more is more. We like to see all the available assets to determine which are most fitting and the best quality. If we’re missing something, we ask for a secondary search. That’s rare, however. Sometimes, there isn’t much to find. That is a strong indicator on how to proceed on a project. If they can’t find anything that suits our needs, we have to shift the focus of the project. 

Beyond any use fees for the pictures, how much does it cost?
Researchers usually have a day rate, and we base the budget on the project’s scope. If the subject matter is specific, it usually takes a few days. When the project stretches further than that, we negotiate a project fee.

Ellen Shapiro (visualanguage.net) is a graphic designer and writer based in Irvington, New York. She is the designer of Alphagram Learning Materials, a tool that helps all children learn to read, write and spell, and the author of The Graphic Designer’s Guide to Clients (Simon & Schuster) and more than 200 magazine articles and posts about visual culture.


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