Rex Features at 60: The need for speed, the Leveson 'paparazzi' backlash and the great digital opportunity

The photo agency that claims to be the first to have snapped Charles and Camilla together in public is celebrating its 60th anniversary – and despite falling prices and growing competition, it has its sights set on growth and expanding to new markets around the world.

Rex Features was founded in 1954 by husband-and-wife team Frank and Elizabeth Selby. Journalism ran in both families, and they met in London while Frank was serving in the British Army and Elizabeth worked for the Free French resistance organisation's London HQ.

They began the business in the front room of the family house in north-west London and remained joint managing directors until just six years ago. By the 1960s, Rex was providing a regular supply of features, news and celebrity pictures to the press in Britain and overseas.

But the company suddenly gained prominence in 1981 when, newly settled in an old ragged-school in Clerkenwell, Rex's new technology allowed it to beat many of its rivals to supply pictures of Prince Charles and Lady Diana's wedding. Operations director Rick Colls was one of four new staff who joined that year – three of whom are still working there today after 33 years. He says:

"We've got plenty of staff who've been here getting in for 20 years and then we have a turnover of young people who join, some who stay and some go on to bigger things in the business. Quite a few people have been through our doors who have gone on to major things in the industry – it's a bit of a springboard.

"When I joined it was well before the days of digital. We had our own film processing lab and that's how I joined, to come in and run that. It was a fledgling operation. We were one of the first agencies take on their own colour film processing.

"It meant when it came to the royal wedding, we were very very quick. We did everything in-house. We excelled that day and we seemed to go from a fairly small agency to a really major player within the space of that year."

Diana would be a recurring theme for the next decade and a half, as Rex underwent a period of rapid growth fuelled by increasing demand for celebrity and entertainment images.

"The Diana thing throughout the 80s was enormous to us and every other agency. She was the most photographed woman on the planet. We photographed her pretty much every day for a decade.

"It is that kind of snowball effect. It's difficult to set out with a plan for world domination – but as you pick up more photographers, more magazines and newspapers want to come to you, and then more photographers want to work with you.

"Throughout the 80s and 90s, we went from about 20 staff to 80 or so and did more and more work, more and more material coming through the door.

"We now supply 40 countries with a daily diet of news and features and celebrity and we've really cemented our reputation.

"There are staff photographers and a coterie of a few dozen freelances who work with us almost every day of the year and a lot of contributors who file just a few dozen stories a year."

In 2008, Rex acquired the Los Angeles-based Berliner Group of photographic companies, with the aim of providing better celebrity coverage of “red carpet” events from the US.

"That allows us to work 24 hours a day because as we go home in London, they have a team of people – editors – who come in and work throughout their day and evening and hand back us to the next morning.

"It is much more driven by celebrities. America is rather inward-looking – they're only really interested in their own news, there's not much world news which really grabs them. But the celebrity market is hugely important – all the parties, premieres, awards we go to over there."

The days of processing film are over, and digitisation has brought costs down significantly. But Colls says one of the biggest challenges facing the agency – and the industry as a whole – is pricing in the digital age.

"The price that a newspaper or magazine pays for an image is probably a fifth of what it was five years ago. And that's gone down steadily since the days of film when the overheads were high – just putting a roll of film in your camera and processing it, and all the infrastructure necessary to be able to bring that image to market – all those costs were pretty high.

"Now of course the costs are very low – photographers with digital cameras don't have any overheads. There are many more photographers, there's much more competition, speed is of the essence and because of the ubiquity of material, the client can play off Rex, Getty, AP, Reuters – and obviously try to do a deal at the cheapest price point. 

"There's the whole rise of citizen journalism where plenty of titles now are trying to get readers to send in their material. It really is a way of trying to generate content at no cost. The publishing industry has been hit pretty hard. As people move to online platforms away from print, they're on the basis of trying to get material in as cheaply as possible and the price point is very low these days.

"Every day we have some exclusive content that nobody else has, that you do charge a premium for. But 10-20 years ago, the number of sales you might make for £20,000 or £40,000 were numerous throughout the year. It's very rare that you ever hear of a picture going that amount these days – it's a real rarity."

A Rex picture of Charles and Camilla photographed together before anybody knew who she was – casually taken at a polo match – has become the agency's biggest selling individual frame. It is a black and white image which has been colourised.

Pricing aside, another challenge is maintaining the agency's reputation – especially in the light of the Leveson Inquiry, which brought up some of the industry's more questionable practices. Colls says:

"We have really distanced ourselves from some of the excesses of pap photographers. Some of the photographers do behave pretty disgracefully and really harangue and intimidate the celebrities. We've always made sure that our own photographers always keep a respectful distance.

"We have a good relationship with many people: Victoria Beckham will happily pose for our photographers because they've built up a relationship over the years, not by knocking on their door and insulting them in the street but by being friendly. And if they're asked not to take pictures, they don't.

"It's hard for photographers on the street because certainly there was a backlash after the Diana death that was blamed on the paparazzi photographers. But even recently, now when people have been commenting on Leveson they've even been calling news photographers paparazzi and describing them as a derogatory term. They're talking about fully employed photographers from The Times and the Telegraph.

"Even the BBC have bandied these terms around in quite an insulting way to what are by and large some respected photographers in the industry who are nothing to do with paparazzi whatsoever. Paparazzi has been thrown rather widely and wildly out to all the photographers who are bona fide newsgathering photographers who have a very respectful relationship with their subject. But often they're being tarred with the same brush."

As technology improves, agencies such as Rex Features are supplying images faster than ever before.

"Many photographers who shoot material will then go to their laptop, download pictures, edit them and send them via their laptop in Starbucks or their car using 4G.

"We've set up our staff photographers to send straight from camera – they have a mi-fi 4G box in their pocket which uses a wireless connection to go from the camera to that. They shoot, look on the back of the camera, they press a single button which sends the file back to us. Technology is key to our operation."

Looking to the future, and Rex is keen to make new partnerships with clients around the world after having already struck supplier deals with MSN and AOL. Colls adds:

"We want to do many more global deals with huge companies that allow us to make sure that Rex content is on everyone's daily newspaper and website.

"Today in the very ubiquitous nature of image gathering – there are so many photographers shooting so much material – the archives are intrinsically valuable. They are our unique record of a time when there were very few photographers working. Think even back to the time of the 1970s and 80s there were dozens of photographers and not hundreds of photographers at even the biggest of premieres. So those archives are unique and have that great value."

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