Image Revolution: How Photo Agencies are Adapting to the 21st Century

The new London offices of Panos Pictures no longer carry the look of the archetypal photo agency. Countless black and white prints were sent back to their photographers, replaced by desks for multimedia producers running Final Cut Pro. Assignments Editor Josh Lustig ruminated on the new facilities.

“We no-longer have filing cabinets full of slides and color transparencies,” said Lustig. “All our analog material has now been scanned and returned to photographers. The shift from analog to digital was probably the biggest change we've seen. In many ways that makes us a little sad, but we're grateful for the extra space.”

Panos isn’t alone in this change, as photo agencies across the globe adapt to the digital age. With the waning of print media and camera phones in over three billion pockets according to Digital Trends, photo agencies face a smaller market with more competition. Photojournalists are being laid off thanks to crowd sourcing and camera availability, CNN Senior VP Jack Womack explained in an email after sacking a dozen staffers. Just months later, Getty Images had to cut payments to its editorial contributors - slashing reproduction fees 15%. The BBC reports sales for images in the UK from photo agencies have fallen to one third of what they once were. Even Magnum Photos, after half a century creating the industry standard, is looking for new ways to innovate and stay relevant.

Archive Director of Magnum Matthew Murphy reflected that “the first generation of Magnum photographers joined the collective at a time when the photo-feature was the best way of relating a piece of photo documentary. That tradition continued until the last 20 or 30 years, where basically other means of sharing these stories came about.”

The founders of Magnum, including the late Henri Cartier Bresson and Robert Capa, could never have imagined the technical advances that now facilitate the distribution of their work. However, the administrative and sales arms of Magnum keep their organization current.

“Of course Magnum has changed a great deal in the last 10 to 15 years, since the primary means of being able to relate these stories is now digital rather than print,” Murphy told Musée. “Magnum’s operations have changed according to those means of distribution.”

A giant in the photo-market, Getty Images dedicated itself from its inception in 1995 “to bring[ing] the fragmented stock photography business into the digital age,” according to Getty’s corporate website. But even with a staggering collection of over 80 million stills and 50,000 hours of footage, Getty still looks for ways to corner the market.

Enter Elodie Maillet, who joined the company in 2007 to launch Contour by Getty Images - a venture aimed to command the high-end, editorial photography market online.

“Contour by Getty Images functions like a boutique agency while leveraging Getty Images’ incredible distribution,” Maillet said in an email. “Our mission is to find the right markets both in terms of placements and economics for these really unique photographers and imagery.”

Representing portrait and fashion photographers such as David LaChapelle and publications including The Los Angeles Times, Contour diversifies the stock photo market that Getty was known for.

Getty also sought to compete with fellow industry goliath Corbis and their portraiture division, Corbis Outline, which Maillet had operated previously. Nevertheless, powerhouses also face the obstacles ubiquitous across the photo world.

“There have been some challenges in the past few years in terms of the print market, but the key is to keep looking at the future and new opportunities,” Maillet said.

While corporations like Getty and Reuters have blossomed as profit-centered business, smaller independent agencies have also found a place in the market.

Much like the founders of Magnum incorporated into a collective in the late 1940s, photojournalist Gary Knight helped to found VII Photo over 60 years later in 2001.

“Business changed radically in the mid- to late-1990s; there were very significant organizations like Getty and Corbis buying small photo agencies, so there was a concentration in the industry,” said Knight. “That made it increasingly difficult for small photo agencies to operate; the economies of scale weren’t right.”

Recognizing that these larger companies were more geared toward distributing content rather than assisting member photographers, Knight created VII with six of his colleagues who had also been in the industry for years. Joined by Alexandra Boulat, Ron Haviv, Antonin Kratochvil, Christopher Morris, James Nachtewy and John Stanmeyer, Knight and his peers thought themselves successful and confident enough to create a photographer owned and operated collective.

“We didn’t want to be represented by massive organizations in which we’d be a very small part with very little influence or control of our careers in terms of what we photograph or how we photograph,” Knight explained. “So we decided we’d be better off to try and manage our careers by ourselves.”

Panos Pictures, originally formed as a branch of the now defunct Panos Institute, an NGO specialized in promoting transparent media within the developing world, followed VII in the smaller, socially-minded agency model.

“We - our staff and photographers - are driven by telling stories that matter; stories that often go untold; stories that go beyond the headlines,” Lustig told Musée in an email. “That may appear as a bit of a sound bite, but the reality of today's news environment means that difficult stories often get ignored. People want cut and dry, black and white, good-guy/bad-guy stories. The world isn't like that - It's made up of mid-tones.”

Although it follows a boutique agency business strategy too, unlike VII and its predecessor Magnum, Panos is a company in its own right rather than a photographers’ collective. For Magnum and VII, member-photographers remain independent after admittance and the agency serves at their need.

“Photographers, after they’re admitted into Magnum, can do as much or as little interaction as they like with clients,” said Murphy. “They could basically devote all their time to working on their personal projects. It’s really their call.”

Both Murphy and Knight explained how, at their respective agencies, the organization’s standard method of practice is to assist in the distribution of their clients’ work. This, however, varies depending on the nature of their members.

“I think the more common commissions are the ones coming from clients, whether they’re editorial, print or online media, and it could be even sometimes corporate or advertising sort of assignments,” Murphy said. “There are certain photographers that are so well established that they will receive commissions from museums or foundations who just want to see the photographers document a specific subject.”

Panos finds the same themes among their photojournalists as well, some of whom chose to work intimately with the company, while others don’t.

“Some [of our photographers] just send us images a few times a year for us to put into our archive and sell as single images; others will speak to us at length about a project, from the earliest inception to the final editorial push,” said Lustig.  “We are here to help our photographers with everything and anything - within reason”

Consequently, photo agencies lie outside the norm for representative agencies: their photographers are not paid a regular salary and do not “work for” the company with whom they are affiliated, according to VII founder Knight.

“It’s a commission based business; all our photographers are freelance,” Lustig explained. “They have their own clients, which we don't touch, and those they get commissioned through us. The rule is, if we made the introduction, then we take a cut. If we didn't, then we don't. Simple.”

Panos Pictures takes a quarter of the profits for works they commission, while VII and Magnum weren’t comfortable providing specific percentage rates, especially since the nature of their commissions can vary drastically.

VII’s rates vary in part due to the special individual and group projects the organization pursues. From gallery shows to partnerships with the European Union and United Nations, Knight explains that the organizations’ “interests are vast,” working in the media, cultural space, film, education, and with various types of NGOs.

“It’s a very diverse organization that has evolved into lots of areas of business,” Knight added.

Panos Pictures almost exclusively focuses on these sorts of partnerships with advocacy groups, according to Lustig, which creates a specific “ethos” within their organization.

“The fact that Panos evolved out of an NGO environment and grew organically over 25+ years, puts us in a unique position” explained Lustig. “We are uniquely placed to understand the concerns of large NGOs as well as an understanding on how to communicate the stories that they, and our photographers, are moved to try and tell.

Efforts to specialize their brand and expand their client base have thrust photo agencies into the digital era. In particular, companies seek trends to which they can latch onto or monopolize, the chief among them being social media, where the visual nature of posts gives photo agencies a strong following.

VII recently held an exhibition of their photographers’ work shot on Instagram, to which they post daily, in a New York gallery to wide acclaim. Magnum embraced the interactive nature of social media posting classic images by their late member Robert Capa and calling for their followers’ responses - whether they be novices in photography or scholars in the subject.

In the wake of the smart phone revolution, Maillet described how Getty “recognized a need in the market” for mobile viewers. Using platforms like Flickr and Instagram, Getty Images can source and distribute special projects and images to newer audiences, according to Maillet. Getty just announced, as well, a new partnership with Foneclay to sell their stock images as high quality backgrounds to Android users.

Additionally, Magnum has utilized new technology and digital services, such as negative scanning and PR campaigns to revitalize the work of their members, making mid-century photographs from its archives contemporary once again.

To keep up with the growing online news market and burgeoning multimedia reporting, Panos recently ventured heavily into the world of video as a storytelling platform. Lustig explained that the company’s structure facilitated this shift, allowing the company to “evolve with the changing modes of communication.”

“Video is a vital communication tool, one that has been embraced by the majority of our photographers,” Lustig went on to say. “We now have two in-house editors dedicated to producing high-quality video storytelling. A redesign of the site is planned for next year, which will place video and multimedia - next to stills - at the heart of what we do.”

These technical innovations do not, however, make up for the financial contstraints placed on the photo industry by the digital age.

“There was a drop in assignments over the last 10 years, very gradually, and of course that’s very much related to the economic downturn,” said Magnum’s Murphy. “But at the same time it has to do more with the industry shifting from print to almost entirely digital means of distribution, so I think it’s countered.”

Lustig agrees that, given his work at Panos, “the financial models are most definitely shifting. The editorial market doesn't buy or commission photo stories in the same way that they used to.”

For him, a return to the heart of photography is all that is needed in these difficult times.

“It's true that photography is becoming more 'democratic'; the quality on some camera phones now is staggering, and more images are being created every year than all previous years combined,” Lustig said. “But for me, this is a red-herring. Photographers need to engage - not just with the subject, but also with the aesthetics.”


by Justin McCallum


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