Next to these big shots, Gates isn't in the frame

The chief of Getty Images doesn't like our 'celebrity crazy' world but he knows what snaps will sell, writes Tim Webb
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Jonathan Klein doesn't know what to think about his trade. The chief executive of the world's largest image library bemoans our "celebrity crazy" society: "Personally, I find it exasperating. I find it sad." But he adds: "Professionally, I find it quite lucrative."

Jonathan Klein doesn't know what to think about his trade. The chief executive of the world's largest image library bemoans our "celebrity crazy" society: "Personally, I find it exasperating. I find it sad." But he adds: "Professionally, I find it quite lucrative."

He should do. He co-founded Getty Images 10 years ago with Mark Getty, the grandson of the US oil billionaire John Paul Getty. A few million dollars from the Getty family, who still own 20 per cent of the company, got it off the ground and now it has a market value of $4.3bn (£2.3bn). Bill Gates is not often the bridesmaid in business, but his own image library, Corbis, is a distant second.

Getty Images sells photographs and moving pictures to newspapers and magazines, film makers, book publishers, advertisers and graphic designers. Pick up a British newspaper and Getty Images will usually have around half the picture credits.

It is the company's job to provide the images that viewers, readers and consumers want. And what the public wants right now is celebrities. "A photo essay about the rise of Aids in China is very hard to sell in a magazine," says Klein. "But we can get an exclusive of a second-tier celebrity like Jordan and we can sell it in 10 seconds for pretty much what we want if no one else has got it."

Getty Images acts as a barometer for society's changing attitudes. For an image to sell depends on whether it reflects the news agenda, fashion trends or advertisers' perceptions of current consumer behaviour. Customers do not want to wait for these images - they want them immediately. So the company has a dedicated unit - the "creative research division" - to predict future trends and then get Getty Images photographers to shoot the pictures that capture them.

"We can anticipate what people want tomorrow," says Klein. It's a serious business. "Creative research is not people reading magazines, watching MTV and smoking dope," he insists.

For example, the company saw three years ago that advertisers would want "models" of all sizes (such as those used in Dove's recent "Real Beauty" campaign), and stocked up on these kinds of shot.

Not all trends are possible to predict. Klein says that after 11 September, common key words used by customers to search for images on the company's website changed within a week. "9/11 made us focus on different things. The 'me, me, me' of the Nineties came to an abrupt end." Words like comfort, home, safety, security, family, he adds, became the most used in searches.

Klein admits that he finds it "extremely difficult looking at our website" because of the graphic violence sometimes depicted. One Getty Images photographer, who was embedded with a US Marines unit in Iraq, photographed a civilian car that drove through a checkpoint. The Marines fired and killed the parents, but the five children in the back survived. The US military threw the photographer out of the unit after Getty published the pictures. "If we see it, we shoot it. It's up to the editor whether he wants to use the image with the children spattered with the parents' brains."

Klein denies that TV has eroded the power of the still picture: "We are bombarded with moving imagery but we remember the still that captures the event." He says the pictures of US soldiers abusing Iraqis at Abu Ghraib prison were "huge" in terms of making Americans rethink "the morality of the war".

Should Getty Images feel threatened by tourists with digital camcorders who are able to send images to news organisations in seconds, as some did after the tsunami disaster? Klein argues that with the world awash with images - some of them fake (witness the Daily Mirror's pictures of alleged abuse by British soldiers in Iraq) - large and trusted sources become more valuable. "We provide guarantees - no one is going to sue you."

The company has come a long way in 10 years, with Klein and his partner having bought over 40 related businesses. "We have exceeded our own expectations."

And other people's, apparently. "Behind every halfway successful man is an extremely surprised woman," he says. "That's very much the case here." For Klein, make that two women - his wife and his mother. "But my wife is far more surprised. My mother is Jewish - she is disappointed I'm not a doctor. But she's over it."