Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Half century of Rex - the history

As Rex is becoming part of Getty, perhaps it's a good time to revisit what I wrote in 2004 and reflect on what's happening in the photo industry today. Then, we were remarking about the film lab going quiet. And the fact that even then it was one of the last independent press agencies......

'Other people just had piles of boxes'– Rex in 2004

Rex Features is the largest independent photographic press agency in the UK and one of the few of its kind left in the world. Founded by Frank and Elizabeth Selby in 1954, Rex has weathered an economic climate which has been especially tough for news agencies, doing so without any obvious damage and with all its old values intact. How do they do it?

Ask Frank and Elizabeth Selby about who does what at Rex and their replies are too complicated to write down. In the end, it seems, everyone does a bit of everything. It’s a family business still, despite the fact that Rex has grown from a two-person business in Frank and Elizabeth’s front room, to a company with 70 staff in the UK and outposts in New York and LA.

Rex’s output is prodigious – an average of 1200 new images are added to the online database every day and last year 450,000 news and celebrity pictures and 85,000 stock pictures were sold. For Rex is not just a news and celebrity agency, though that is how many people have seen it in the past- and the company is making efforts to let its customers know about the vast range of material contained in the 15 million images they have on file, one million of which are now on-line. Currently around 80% of sales are news and celebrity, while 20% are stock. The number of stock sales is growing all the time.

Elizabeth and Frank Selby are both from journalistic backgrounds, and both of Hungarian origin. They came to England in the thirties: Elizabeth was at school until 1942, when she left “ because I became disillusioned with it” and worked with her father, who had been a prominent journalist for the German- speaking press before the war; Frank, son of the editor- in-chief of Hungary’s leading newspaper group, worked in photography for six months before the war and volunteered for the British Army when war broke out. They married in 1948.

The roots of the agency are more in features than in news, and hence the name. The agency was set up when a Hungarian friend in France needed representation in the UK. The pictures – then all black and white prints – were distributed from the Selbys’ front room for the next nine years. They were kept in 10x8 photographic paper boxes. Most of the original pictures at the outset were Paris fashions, other suppliers joined later to contribute news material, and Rex started to represent stock agency Devaney (now Superstock) in 1954. In-house production included a creative relationship with British photographer Ron Spillman and Canadian journalist Jack Ramsay who were famous for their set-up funny animal sequences, involving chicks, ducklings, kittens and mice.

In the early days, Rex made sales and gained customers through their speedy distribution of original prints of hot news events, which were of much better quality than the blurred wire pictures of the time. The prints were taken round to Fleet Street newspapers in a leather bag: Frank Selby was ‘the original bag man’. Elizabeth meanwhile ran the office and the growing library.

As the company grew, the library came into its own, as a result of an efficient filing system. The newspapers, which had their own libraries but were often unable to find their own pictures when needed, came to rely on Rex.

“ We taught staff to find images” says Elizabeth. “I was insistent on cross referencing. Other people just had piles of boxes, but we had filing cabinets. Customers knew we could find the pictures, where other people couldn’t”

When John Selby joined the business in 1976, he brought new ideas to the business and started colour duplication. In 1979, after a serious fire at their premises in East Harding St, Rex moved to its current location in Vine Hill.

Now the business started to take off. Organisation has always been a key element of Rex’s success – distribution of material after a major news event is
planned in meticulous detail, and executed with ruthless efficiency, with all hands on board. Diana’s wedding in 1981 put Rex on the map with large numbers of dupes captioned and mounted against the clock, in time for the newspaper deadlines. Frank recalls that just one minute was allowed per film to select images for duping.

Nowadays nearly all new material coming into the company is digital. The film lab has gone quiet and so have the telephones, which use to buzz with the 3-4000 requests for pictures every month. Now, it’s the web site which is busy, with an average of 2750 downloads every day. Rex still lays great emphasis on personal service though, and is always there to help researchers find what they want.

It’s the way Rex does business which as part of the attraction to customers and suppliers alike. In the old days major deals were done on a handshake. The first big contract was with Woman’s Own for pictures of Frank Sinatra’s 50th birthday. As Frank recalls, “ There was no signature, we shook hands and that was that.” With Weekend Magazine, he says, “ We always did business in the pub. That was where you could usually find the editor, Alex Merritt; but he always remembered what we agreed.” The Selbys cannot recall any conflicts over deals, and the company has an impeccable reputation for honesty. Picture editors knew Rex would stick by their word, and contributors knew they would get their money even before the agency was paid. Sadly, the huge number of late-paying clients mean that nowadays the photographers have to wait until Rex has collected…..

In an era where big business has moved into the picture business, Rex Features has a remarkable resilience. From time to time, says Director Martin Hillier, people ring up and ask “ What is it Rex is doing that we’re not doing?” But, as Elizabeth points out “ It wasn’t a business we set up; it was our metier, our way of life, and everyone got involved in the same spirit.”

The company is run “ with a conscience” and has paid dearly for some decisions of principle, but nevertheless there is a steely backbone to the way Rex is run which is perhaps something do with fact that it is a family business – in the broadest sense. At least 10 staff have been with the company for twenty years or more – the longest has been with Rex for thirty five years. Allan Day, the UK Sales Director, recently retired after 36 years. The company is run on teamwork, with Elizabeth and Frank still very much at the helm despite their age; they are a very sprightly seventy-nine and eighty-six . With John, Mike, and Sue Selby all very much involved, the family nature of the business looks set to continue.

The change to digital technology has been a big challenge. Rex did not make people redundant as other companies did, they simply retrained their staff to do other tasks such as keywording . Despite the “eery quiet “ in the office, digitisation has brought staff closer to the business, they say, and given them more responsibility. The stock side of the business is being developed so that Rex is becoming a one-stop portal for all kinds of images. What is their biggest challenge now? “ The competition. To stay as we are, respected the way we are, and to live up to it. “ says Elizabeth. “ And for us to stay alive.”

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