Every picture sells a story

Getty Images has changed the way photographs end up in newspapers, magazines and online. Ian Burrell talks to its founders

Alongside the elegant but stark 15th-century pages of Gutenberg's first printed Bible rests the work of his protégés Fust & Schoeffer who in 1462 illustrated the scriptures with beautifully drawn colour images. "Aren't these wonderful? Aren't they magnificent?" asks Mark Getty, grandson of the famous oil tycoon John Paul (Sir Paul's father), standing in his cricket whites amid one of the finest collections of illuminated manuscripts in the world.

The library perfectly exemplifies the role of the visual image in conveying information. Mark Getty - with his long blond hair and Desperate Dan jaw - talks knowledgeably and with undisguised enthusiasm about the illuminated manuscripts and so he might. He and his business partner Jonathan Klein have followed similar principles in building a media empire that generates £355m a year.

Klein says: "What we thought in theory could become a profitable business has become more profitable, bigger, much more quickly than we'd ever anticipated. We think we are one of the most profitable media companies in the world."

Getty Images, in the space of 10 short years, has grown into the world's leading images company, supplying pictures for advertising campaigns, marketing work, websites and the front pages of the world's most famous newspapers. Founded in London in 1995, the company moved from its original headquarters in Camden Town to Seattle and has become one of the few great success stories of the dotcom era.

Sitting in the umpire's tent at the estate's cricket ground - maintained by Getty staff to "Lord's standards" - Klein tells the company's story.

Klein and Getty met while working for Hambros investment bank in London 1991 and founded the company four years later. In the original company documents there was no mention of the internet but it quickly became clear that the worldwide web would be the key to its success. Getty Images, which has amassed a vast stock of pictures (most notably the Hulton Archive, which is based in west London and has 40 million photographs dating back to 1860), has transformed the way the global media uses visuals.

It sells all its pictures online; its photographers were among the first to be told to work entirely in digital and it hasn't sold one of the old-style colour transparencies for three years.

Klein, who was born in South Africa and moved to England aged 17, says: "The internet promised so much to so many businesses and has delivered so little to so many and an enormous amount to so few. We are one of the ultimate internet businesses. Our cost of distribution has gone from very high to virtually nothing."

Getty Images already has subscription arrangements with 55 of the top 100 US newspapers (compared to none three years ago) and companies such as Mirror Group in the UK. These deals allow papers to download pictures from the Getty archives in real time at no extra cost, much in the same way as they might use copy from, say, Reuters.

Klein says this process will continue to grow as papers and publishers reduced their reliance on staff photographers. He says: "We probably have more accredited photographers at the Olympic Games than the British media combined, so by definition we can cover an event in greater depth and breadth than a single newspaper."

Getty Images has an editorial pool of 120 photographers worldwide. But it is still sometimes viewed with suspicion - its move in 1997 to make pictures available royalty-free (pay a set fee and use as many times as you like) led to picket lines and signs saying "Getty and Klein - the antichrists of copyright".

Klein nevertheless argues that Getty Images is good news for photographers. "There's a common misconception about us that somehow we are a big static archive. That's a misconception we are trying hard to correct. We have always been a creative force in our industry and not just a distributor of dead pictures," he says, noting that 40,000 fresh images are added to the collection every year by Getty photographers.

The company's photographers "absolutely love it because they have way more freedom working for the Associated Press or the Press Association", he says. "Fundamentally their freedom derives from them being photojournalists. There's no one writing the story. They are allowed to tell the story with pictures."

A Getty photographer will not go for the obvious "commodity shot" (eg Tiger Woods's winning putt in the British Open). The GI photographer must "capture the defining emotion around the moment, so they can literally be focusing on his wife or someone in the crowd and try and get a completely different shot", says Klein.

The company now has offices from Brazil to Tokyo, with 400 staff in Seattle and 500 in London. A new office has opened in Beijing but Klein cautions: "Long term we are very excited about [China] but short term ... nah, not much is going to happen until they as a country have respect for intellectual property rights. People need to know it may be a big market but you won't get paid for what you use."

The bulk of Getty Images' business (81 per cent) is creative work, art-directed and pre-shot for the marketing and advertising industries. For this reason, he is not worried by the prevalence of cameras in mobile phones. "People who are spending a lot of money on their product don't want a second-rate image because it completely dilutes their brand," he points out.

Nor does he agree with the idea that everyone with a modern phone is a potential photographer. In spite of amateur shots emerging after the tsunami and the London bombings, he think the professionals will still reign. What he does believe in is "popularising imagery" so that future generations will come to expect their newspaper front pages, magazines, websites and marketing material to be more picture-led than they are already.

To drive this craving for pictures, Getty's website is not protected from downloading for free at low resolution. "If every kid doing a school project wants to download a picture that's fine with us. We don't want professionals downloading high resolution and not paying for them."

The company even has a creative research team tasked with identifying new social trends and getting images shot before clients have even asked for them.

He says: "If I can use a cricket analogy we are a company that scores a lot of runs but doesn't try to hit a six. It looks like we've grown explosively but we are execution junkies."

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