Creative director, publisher, bestselling author, former editor-in-chief of Creative Review: these are just some of the titles you will find on Lewis Blackwell’s résumé. He talks to Michael Weinzettl about his new role as CCO of Evolve Images.
Image: A disco in Siberia. Alexey Poselenov/Evolve Images.
I first met Lewis Blackwell in the early 90s when, as editor-in-chief of Creative Review, he was a regular member of the Epica Awards jury. He’s been one of my top authorities in all matters graphic design and photography ever since. We featured an interview with him in 2000 (Vol. 6), a year after he left Creative Review to become International Creative Director of Getty Images. Twelve years on, I thought it was high time to do some catching up with him.
What's happened since we last interviewed you?
My career trajectory maps the wider changes in communication and advertising. I was involved in traditional media – editing and publishing Creative Review magazine and writing books. Then I entered the internet in a big way while leading the creative development of Getty Images, which I was immersed in the last time we spoke.
It was fascinating to spend many millions of dollars on improving the access to photography and film. New ways of creating things demanded a different relationship with photography: there was an explosion in the quantity of images that advertising and other image users wanted and we responded.
But these days we are in a different age. Now we are sorting out the problems we created with the first phase of digital exploration, as much as building on it. If you were being provocative you might make analogies between the creative services industry and that of the overheated world of finance that collapsed in 2008. Both worlds had bought into their own mythology a little too much, although fortunately mistakes in the creative marketplace don't lead to the collapse of whole economies.
Images: Lewis Blackwell [left] photographed by Tim Flach. Pregnant woman [right]. Linda/Evolve Images.
So what is the problem for photography and creativity?
Digital became a boon and blight for photography. Mostly good, for sure, but undoubtedly the new technology and the social and professional changes it has supported brought big challenges that have yet to be fully addressed for professional image users.
Instead of becoming easier to find good images, in some ways it became harder. Where once the creative or art buyer could get professional service to find professional images, today they generally do not. Most dive into the internet and find an over-supply of images and photographers, all jumbled up. There are sites offering vast collections of the same visual clichés, with photographers copying each other, and there is little focus or skill applied to editing.
Indeed, the whole notion of bringing a close discerning eye to selecting the best photograph has been axed by many image enterprises. Instead, the technology supports easy upload of millions of images and requires the customer to do the sorting! The assumption is that customers are driven almost entirely financially, and so the price for images have come down, the quantity of supply has gone up, but the quest for creative originality and quality of photography has been undermined.
Don't the laws of supply and demand determine that the market gets what it wants?
Yes – and no! We have been in digital media phase one when it comes to creating, distributing, using photography and film. Now we have mastered certain basics and we are about to enter a more sophisticated age. We had to go through a period of commoditising, just like every other industrial revolution.
Having learnt how to make and share images much more easily, now we can move on to refining the choice. The market wants - needs - renewed quality. Bland websites with tens of millions of poor images are a terrible disservice for creatives. It is rather like being forced into one massive shop, where the few things you need are racked up in exactly the same way, spread out and hidden among loads of things you don't want, and we all get the same experience.
That's how it has been for those of us trying to find photography in recent time. I say this as an image-maker and buyer – I have shot or sourced pictures for several books, exhibitions and campaigns over the past five years. We are being forced to buy at the visual equivalent of Wal-Mart when we want Prada.
It isn't just the customer who loses out – photographers suffer too. Many thousands are falsely encourage to chase an illusory income making poor, derivative work. What should be a great pastime turns into poor business for them. Meanwhile the elite minority of photographers who should make a better income don't get their work properly marketed.
Image: Old cameras in Marrakech. Inti St. Clair/Evolve Images.
And so what has this meant for you professionally?
Well, it explains why I have become Chief Creative Officer at a new company, Evolve Images. We source photographs and apply an immensely demanding filter in the edit. We take just a very small fraction of what we see. But that is always the way with good creative work: you have to pare away, reduce things to what really matters, and never tire of trying to make it better.
There's a cost to that essential wastage, of course. So we don't have any intention of offering super-low prices. We have a model that aims to be inspiring in quality and fair in price to clients but also support photographers in making great images. And we aim to support experimentation with our photographers and clients: there should be a community of creative activity around what we do. But these are early days – we may fail miserably! That adds some edge.
And what about your publishing? You have written well-known books for creatives. What is next?
I have several books out this autumn that I have degrees of involvement in. I am delighted at the continued reception of ‘Photowisdom’, in multiple languages and just into a reprint in Chinese.
My big delight of recent time was outside my normal zone, being the ‘Life & Love of Trees’. It was a Christmas bestseller in the US. A personal passion for all-things-trees turned out to be of great general appeal, which was wonderful. I have had lots of lovely emails from people with strange tree-related passion. I hope it prompts some more tree planting. We need that even more than we need better edited photographs and great ads!
Lewis Blackwell is Chief Creative Officer at Evolve Images and is also Editor-at-Large at publishing company PQ Blackwell. Banner image credit: Michael Hipple/Evolve Images.