The Cutting Edge: COMPUTING / TECHNOLOGY / INNOVATION : A (Digital) Photo Opportunity : Agencies Begin the Move From Slides to CDs

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Inside the cavernous offices of Westlight, a Santa Monica stock photo agency, the dominant motif is metal file cabinets: Scores of them, lined up in neat rows, contain more than 2.5 million pictures. But Craig Aurness, the company's president, would like nothing better than to see those file cabinets go.

In their place, Aurness envisions neat stacks of compact discs, each holding about 5,000 images--or one file cabinet's worth. The pictures, reduced to the ones and zeros of computer code, would be available to clients via telephone lines. Freed of the expensive and cumbersome logistics of negatives and chemical prints, publishers of everything from company newsletters to party invitations would use more photos than ever--and Westlight, with more customers and less overhead, would boom.

That, at least, is the dream of Westlight and a handful of other forward-thinking stock photo agencies. Like many other segments of the publishing industry, they see technology changing their business dramatically--and they hope to turn upheaval into opportunity.

Already, digital technology has begun to reshape the universe of the 100 or so companies that archive and sell pictures, mostly to magazines and advertising agencies. Photo houses are publishing catalogues on CD-ROMs, taking orders over the Internet and distributing images on CD-ROMs.

Eventually, a completely digital process is likely to replace the traditional means of buying and printing photos. Today, most clients leaf through catalogues as thick as telephone books, then order a slide, which then goes through a three-step process of printing, stripping and color separation. Digital images are much easier to prepare for printing, and they can be retouched with more clarity and precision than a chemical print.

Perhaps most important, they can be transmitted in minutes over phone lines.

"It is analogous to how the fax has changed business," said Nick Scheer, manager of electronic imaging for Bettmann Archive in New York. "For a lot of our clients, the most important aspect of whether or not they can use an image is whether they can get it in time."

Still, converting to an all-digital format for storing, marketing and distributing photographs is more difficult than it seems. Even though many agencies are investing in the equipment needed to handle photos digitally, their clients often don't have the proper gear--and in some cases aren't much interested in changing the way they operate.

The young art director at an advertising agency, for example, "is fascinated with computers and new technology, but the people in charge are not as young and friendly with machines," said Michel Bernard, president of the New York agency Liaison International. "They still like to see the slides and hold them in their hands above the light table. They shy away from computer screens."

There are other problems: Unauthorized use of copyrighted images has always been a worry for stock photo agencies, and digitization makes them more susceptible to new kinds of piracy, notably the use of pieces of images that are combined with other works.

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So far, only about a quarter of the 97 stock photo agencies that are members of the Picture Agency Council of America have embraced digital technology as warmly as Aurness, said Allen Russell, chairman of the trade association's new-technology committee.

Yet few doubt that digital will become vital in the long run.

"Some agencies are hiding their heads in the sand. They prefer to pretend that new technology is not going to reshape their industry," said Alan Carey, president of the Picture Agency Council and owner of Imageworks, a stock photo agency in Woodstock, N.Y. "I think they are wrong. They are making a big mistake."

At Westlight, Aurness has spent two years converting the company's most popular images to digital files. About 4,500 of them appear on QUESTock, a databank of images available on CD-ROM that comes equipped with a searching mechanism so Westlight clients can select images using simple keywords.

Early versions of QUESTock were released last spring to some of Westlight's clients. By the end of this month, the company will begin widely marketing the disc, at a cost of $59.95.

Such products are crucial to what many in the photo business hope will be a dramatic expansion of their customer base. Desktop publishers who are creating newsletters or corporate reports, for example, have begun to peruse electronic catalogues such as QUESTock, downloading images directly into their publications.

Agencies are also using catalogues of Photo CD, a format developed by Kodak, to break into the lucrative multimedia market. Jeff Arch, photo editor for Decision Development Corp., an educational multimedia company in San Ramon, Calif., needs to select 1,800 pictures for a social studies project to go with text, video and sound.

Arch said it is more convenient to browse through images on a CD-ROM or on-line service rather than thumb through a large paper catalogue. It also helps him find more appropriate pictures because "it gives me a better sense of what's out there," he said.

Photo buyers can also use on-line services to search for stock photos quickly. The granddaddy of them is the 14-month-old Kodak Picture Exchange, which displays close to 200,000 images from 26 stock agencies. Clients purchase access software for $199, then search for photos and place orders using electronic mail. The exchange has already registered 2,000 clients, market development director Mike Harrington said.

Stock agency photos can be found on the Internet as well. By year's end, more than 4 million photos are expected to be available through various Internet servers, Carey said.

Not everyone has made the leap to digital successfully. Zephyr Pictures, a small stock photo agency in the San Diego suburb of Solana Beach, produced a CD-ROM with 2,700 images and put it on the market for $49.95 a year ago. Only 75 copies have been sold, company owner Leo Gradinger said.

"It hasn't caught on nearly as much as we had expected," said Gradinger, who figures he was a little ahead of his time. "There is no comparison right now that stock photo catalogues are still the choice of art buyers out there."

But Russell of the Picture Agency Council of America said that is changing. Of the three-quarters of photo agencies that have yet to invest in digital technologies, "98% of them are actively pursuing how they will get involved," he said. "We're pretty much to the point where we know digital is coming, and the question is, how are we going to deal with this?"

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