Digital imaging

Photo libraries on the Internet are increasing in both quantity and quality, and several companies are set to exploit this burgeoning market – Getty Communications is just one.

Mark Getty’s grandfather was the richest man in the world. John Paul Getty owned Getty Oil and built up a vast empire of oil wells, refineries and gas stations before he died in the Seventies. All around the US, you could see the Getty money.

Twenty years after his death, the wealth of his grandson is similarly all around us, yet significantly harder to place. At the end of last year Mark Getty was worth millions, yet his company works out of a small office in north London. This new Getty mines for rights.

It doesn’t take a genius to realise that wealth in the 20th century has evolved from tangible assets like steel and oil to the intangible assets of what is universally dubbed “content”. Four of the five richest men in the world in the Nineties accumulated their wealth through software. Bill Gates, if he spends his money at all, spends it on acquiring intellectual property rights (and muscling in on Getty’s core business). What is so elegant is the way this story of two Gettys perfectly mirrors the change, and how Getty’s new business – photography libraries – has started to develop almost exactly as digital evangelists like Gates predicted.

Mark Getty is the co-owner of Getty Communications and, since 1994, it has been frantically acquiring one of the largest libraries of stock and archive photography in the world. Having purchased Photodisc last September, it is now one of the leading players in exploiting its libraries on-line. Every day thousands of picture researchers, website builders, advertisers and intrigued browsers pour over its website and other emerging on-line libraries looking for images of the suddenly newsworthy, perhaps the suddenly dead or just an archive image to refresh their client’s tired old brand.

The grey backgrounds, blocky text and incomprehensible search commands of the Internet five years ago would have made such a task impossible. Now it is commonplace.

Matthew Glynn is a picture researcher at the Financial Times and admits that the newspaper is using the Web libraries more and more. “Sending bikes for trannies restricted me to London. If I wanted anything out-of-town then I could forget it for that night’s edition.”

Favouring Getty, AP and the Gates-owned Corbis, Glynn acknowledges the improvements they have all made in the past year. “They are extraordinarily well organised – I can quickly find exactly what I want.” Yet he acknowledges that finding stills on-line is only a small percentage of his work. The FT still maintains a large conventional (not yet digitised) library of its own, and even on-line the Web libraries aren’t his first stop. “If we are looking for a picture of the chief executive of a company then quite often it’s easier to just go straight to its own site and lift shots from there.”

Talking to other journalists while researching this piece did feel a bit like the BT ad where Brian Walden looks on in the background while some long-haired youth extols the virtues of ISDN. All of them banged on about the virtues of the new library sites, and for the most part the impetus to go digital had come from them, not their bosses. Yet, according to a British Association of Picture Libraries and Agencies survey last April, only 41 of its 350 members had gone on-line and were sending out CD-ROMs.

This was probably because, although the people I spoke to were all keeping an eye on the Web libraries, very few actually admitted to purchasing on-line, even though they had the equipment to do so. Established image library The Stock Market confess that although it now has a sophisticated Web presence, over 80 per cent of its sales still come from catalogues and conventional searches.

As with other forms of on-line selling (such as books and CDs) the evidence is patchy and the initial start-up companies are there not to make profit but to establish market share. Any worries about the future growth of the market are unlikely to affect the likes of Mark Getty, however. Getty Images was valued at 200m at the end of 1997 and its acquisitions continue apace. Download times, fingerprinting and ease of access will inevitably improve, and then watch the cash flood in. Just like his grandad striking oil for the first time.

Getty Images

Once you are sure you have the latest browser, the latest plug-ins, and you’ve cleaned your teeth that morning, you might summon up the courage to enter this site, which co-hosts the similar-to-navigate Tony Stone collections plus a raft of self-promotion. Once you’ve sailed past an impressive but pointless bit of flash animation, filled out several forms and worked out whether you want advanced or simple search you finally get access to the stills.

Thus, in five minutes, I viewed eight Tony Bennetts, 34 Tony Blairs and 12 madonnas (all pre-war images, though – not the sought-after singer). A request for the Spice Girls yielded only a cute still of dancers from 1912, dubbed The Original Spice Girls, and a futile attempt to view All Saints brought up, alarmingly, an error message. So, a nice sense of irony, fantastic ease of use and, considering its main source (the previously BBC-owned Hulton Deutsch), a surprising range of stills. If you’ve got the right plug-ins, the animation and movement are downplayed and, for what is a revered brand among libraries, there is the right tone of reverence. It also co-hosts the following sites:




The Stock Market

The two things you initially notice on this site are, unsurprisingly, the Stock Market’s phone number and a pointless and memory-hungry winking dog. Critics could argue that this signifies that conventional ordering takes precedence and this website is a gimmick. Yet the three million images are sensibly categorised. The searching, although archaic Boolean, is simple enough and, although vague input gets vague output (154 images of grass or 900 babies), there is a coherent set of categories (from sports to sensitive issues) and a range of sub-sets to drill down to the image you’re after.

If you’ve got time, that is. Stock Market, as with most websites, suffers from mind-numbing download times – even when using a fast T1 line while the US was asleep. Deadline-crazed researchers late on a Tuesday afternoon would be mad not to stick to flicking through the catalogue and then ringing up the number featured on every page.

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