From Sex Object to Gritty Woman: The Evolution of Women in Stock Photos

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In 2017, the most purchased photo for the search term “woman” in Getty Image’s library is of a woman hiking alone in Banff National Park. “It really feels like an image about power,” said Pam Grossman, a director at Getty.CreditJordan Siemens/Getty Images
In 2007, the top-selling Getty photo for the search term “woman” was a naked woman under a towel.CreditStephan Hoeck/Getty Images

In 2007, the top-selling image for the search term “woman” in Getty Image’s library of stock photography was a naked woman lying on a bed, gazing at the camera with a towel draped over her bottom half.

In 2017, it’s a woman hiking a rocky trail in Banff National Park, alone on the edge of a cliff high above a turquoise lake. She’s wearing a down jacket and wool hat, and her face isn’t visible.

“It really feels like an image about power, about freedom, about trusting oneself,” said Pam Grossman, director of visual trends at Getty Images. “Who cares what you even look like? Let’s focus on what you’re doing.”

Stock photos — generic images that appear in places like ads, billboards, magazines and blogs — reflect the culture at a moment in time.

Over the last decade, the most sold images from Getty for the search term “women” have evolved from photos of mostly naked models to active women to ones in which women’s appearance is beside the point.

In 2017, based on the Getty photos most chosen by marketers and the media, to be a woman is to be on your own, physically active and undeterred by either sweat or circuit boards.

2007CreditStephan Hoeck/Getty Images
2008*CreditAndreas Kuehn/Getty Images
2009CreditSiri Stafford/Getty Images
2010CreditPaul Viant/Getty Images
2011*CreditMike Powell/Getty Images
2012CreditRoy Mehta/Getty Images
2013CreditGuido Mieth/Getty Images
2014CreditDonald Miralle/Getty Images
2015CreditBetsie Van Der Meer/Getty Images
2016CreditTegra Stone Nuess/Getty Images
2017CreditJordan Siemens/Getty Images

* In 2008 and 2011, the top-selling images were licensed exclusively; these are second on the list.

The change from women lounging naked (or perhaps laughing alone with salad) to women demonstrating physical or professional prowess was driven in part by the Lean In collection, which Getty developed in 2014 with Sheryl Sandberg’s nonprofit to seed media with more modern, diverse and empowering images of women. The collection, now with 14,000 photos, has the unofficial tagline, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

The 15 most downloaded images from the Lean In collection so far this year, including those below, are four of fathers playing with children; four of girls and women involved in science and engineering; three of women being athletic; and four of women in business or school settings. (Downloads are a measurement of not just sales but also popularity. The price customers pay for a photo they download varies depending on its use.)

A woman soldering a circuit board is among the most downloaded images this year from Getty’s Lean In Collection.
CreditVgajic/Getty Images

When the Lean In collection began three years ago, the most downloaded photos showed women in work or family settings: a pregnant woman leading a business meeting or a father playing with a baby while the mother worked on her computer. The 15 most downloaded from the collection so far this year are more likely to show women scaling a wall or doing push-ups, alone. The images customers see when they search are determined by both popularity and human curation.

Photos of working women were always popular in the collection. But newly popular this year are pictures of women who are sweaty, dirty and active.CreditNicolamargaret/Getty Images

At Getty, they’ve given the trend a name: gritty woman. Ms. Grossman defined it as “images of women literally having dirt on them and not caring, of being powerful and strong.”

“Especially in light of the election last year,” she said, “it definitely seems like this idea of women having grit was a really important ongoing message, both rhetorically and visually.”

They are often alone.
CreditPeopleImages/Getty Images

It could also be sending another message about this political moment: that women feel they’re fighting on their own, said Giorgia Aiello, an associate professor of media and communication at the University of Leeds in Britain. “It’s focused on the individual rather than the person as part of a collective, which would be key to a certain definition of feminism,” she said.

Either way, it’s part of a cultural embrace of nontraditional gender roles and broader diversity. In July, Britain’s advertising regulator announced rules banning ads that promote gender stereotypes, sexually objectify women or promote unhealthy body images. TONL, a new stock photo service that shows culturally diverse images, debuted in August. At Getty, global searches for “woman protest” quadrupled in the last year. Searches for “woman coding” tripled, and those for “female C.E.O.” grew 47 percent.

Searches for “female C.E.O.” jumped this year.CreditLeoPatrizi/Getty Images

Social media has pushed marketers to show people in more realistic and diverse ways, Ms. Grossman said. “It really is such a marked change,” she said. “For the first time in history, people can represent themselves, and therefore they demand brands to render them visible, too.”

The most popular images include those of people with a range of ages and appearances.CreditBraunS/Getty Images

But even photos that push gender boundaries nod to convention, according to Ms. Aiello, who along with researchers at the Digital Methods Initiative in Amsterdam studied how the Lean In photos were used. Men shown with babies, for instance, tend to be bearded and muscled, as if to emphasize their masculinity.

Photos of fathers tend to show them with beards or big muscles: nurturing, yet manly.CreditMaskot/Getty Images

The researchers found that photos from the Lean In collection are most often used in lifestyle articles about topics like fashion, food and health, or in those about the challenges of balancing work and motherhood or succeeding in a male-dominated career. The most typical images in the Lean In collection are of Caucasian women in their 20s with long brown hair.

Though many depict women in tech or science, these were seldom used to illustrate general science stories, but rather accompanied articles about the challenges of being a woman in science, the study found. Similarly, images of nonwhite women were used more on sites that focused on race and ethnicity.

Photos of women or girls who aren’t white were most likely to be used on sites about race.CreditAsiseeit/Getty Images

“It’s not good enough for companies to just say, ‘Hey, let’s put some diverse models in our projects,’” Ms. Grossman said. “None of this matters unless it’s also about who you’re hiring, the opportunities you’re giving people, who you’re paying.”

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