Friday, December 4, 2009

Stock Photos and Stock Horses

I did a quick box count last night and realized that I was one-third done with my big “descriptors” project – considerably further along than I had anticipated. It helps that I'm not working, I guess. I have lots of time to occupy, and I might as well do it constructively.

The not-working part is not by choice. And not something I want to talk about right now.

What I do want to talk about is the catalog photography problem. No, not the recent phenomenon of lackluster lighting and color correction, but Breyer's bad habit of reusing and recycling old stock photos.

It was a particularly bad problem in the 1960s and early 1970s, when the product line changed at what now seems like a glacial pace: models and colors were issued not for months or years, but for decades. It made sense for Breyer to get as much use out of the stock photographs they had on file, rather than retake photos of the same models from year to year.

The only problem was that these paint jobs didn't necessarily stay the same over time. Markings changed, or the color or shading may have been tweaked over the years. Sometimes only the prototype of the model was available for the initial photo shoot, and the production model was significantly different. The Yellow Mount was famous for this discrepancy. For years, Breyer used photos of the prototype, which looked little like the actual production model. Here he is again, in the 1975 Collector's Manual:

He was his actual normal self in other PR materials, including the picture box he came in – here illustrated in the 1975 Dealer's Catalog:

Many of us were quite disappointed back in the day when we realized that the model we received only bore a passing resemblance to the one we saw in the catalog – because it was the photo in the catalog that we had formed our hopes and dreams on!

It's a huge problem when it comes to documenting color and mold changes. Most of the photographs in the 1968 Collector's Manual weren't taken from models that were fresh off the line: they were stock photographs that had been sitting around, sometimes for years. They retook a lot of them for the 1969 Manual, but a lot of those same photos were still being used in the 1975 Collector's Manual, even though many paint jobs changed dramatically in that timespan. We have to rely on other sources – contemporary photographs and accounts, and non-catalog promotional materials – to date those changes.

Stock photos are still useful research tools; look at how far it got us with the mystery of the Sorrel Fighting Stallion. It helped establish an earliest possible date: that model in that color had to exist by 1963. Stock photos cannot be used to establish a latest possible date, because as long as the photos exists in some form, somewhere, it may get used. For example, I have a very amusing toy jobber catalog from 1977: some of the photos they use to illustrate then-current Breyer products date back to the 1950s! (And don't necessarily match up to the product advertised!)

I'll have to talk about that wonderful old toy catalog another day – it really is worth its own post.

The stock photo problem doesn't happen as much as it used to, because the turnover is so high that individual releases don't have the opportunity to change over time. The markings or masking might be a bit different, or they might switch the finish from matte to gloss, but the photographs they release are a lot closer to the final production pieces than they used to be. We still hear griping and moaning about the models don't EXACTLY match the photographs, but compared to what we had to deal with in the 1970s, those complaints seem almost comical.

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