Editorial & Business
Gamma-Rapho made in Lochon
François Lochon, owner and director of Gamma. JF Deroubaix / Gamma-Rapho
Nine months after the creation of the new Gamma-Rapho agency following the fall of the Eyedea Group, François Lochon has taken over, teaming up with former Gamma colleagues Nicole Benoit and Hervé Tardy to “get things back on track”.
One year ago, the sudden bankruptcy of the Group Eyedea endangered one of the most important French photographic archives that housed images from agencies such as Gamma, Rapho, Keystone, Reporters Associés, Hoa-qui, Explorer, Jacana, Top, Stills and many others. Approximately fifty employees lost their jobs, Kathleen Grosset and Chantal Soler, pillars of the agency, were let go, and the photographers were left to a precarious existence, freelancing, independent authors with no guarantee. Tens of millions of negatives were involved in a judicial proceeding far too dangerous.
A stroke of luck : On April 26th, 2010, the Paris courts decreed to yield almost all of the assets of the Eyedea companies to former photographer and equally former Gamma Director: François Lochon!
From Lagardère to Lochon
A brief update : September 13th, 1999. Hachette Filipacchi Médias purchases 75% of AGI, 100% owner of Gamma, who diffuses “100,000 new images per year and owns a stock of over 12 million negatives”. The following winter, the prestigious agency Rapho enters the future “Photo Pole” that the group Lagardère created in order to compete with Getty and Corbis. What a match that was to be! Renouncing the purchase of the press agency Sipa from Gosking Sipahioglu, HFM-Lagardère acquires “Keystone and its 15 million negatives” in full, along with the agencies Katz, Top, Explorer, Jacana, etc.
The dream will last less than six years, and will cost the group Lagardère over tens of millions of euros. The reasons for the failure? The director listened only to the men from the business, finance and marketing sides instead of listening to the people of the press. The irreconcilable role between magazine editors and that of distributors of photographs. And also, it must be said, a complete incompatibility between artisanal ateliers and an international group of industry and information.
There comes a time when it is necessary not only to think of the action, but also to put it in motion; it’s a group logic.
On January 24th, 2007, an odd official statement is released, saying that HFM “has yielded their photo agencies to Green Recovery, ‘following exclusive negotiations engaged last December. Mr. Stéphane Ledoux, until today President and General Director of the Cité de l’Image, takes over the management of the agencies”. Strange, since these “exclusive” negotiations are in fact not exclusive. Then why would such a thing be stated? Add to that, Bertrand Eveno, then AFP’s CEO turned “director” of the “photo pole,” had hoped to buy it all from HFM-Lagardère, with the help of Franck Ullman from Verdoso Media, a recovery company. Gérald de Roquemaurel would have promised the sale to Eveno, but he was then “led into” other activities.
The “Greens”, as Eyedea’s employees were known, purchased the group of agencies and the millions of photographs from HFM-Lagardère, who, quite nicely, gave Eyedea a 6 million euro loan with no interest rate, in order to cover the expenses of what would soon become a well-organized bankruptcy. When no one was looking, Lagardère turned those 6 million euros into 0.10 euro-cents when the court summons became subsequently more persistent.
Stéphane Ledoux et Olivier Bloud, delegates from management at “Green Recovery” are conscious of the importance of their mission: to save the French agencies. This objective justifies the thoughtless spending and the fear that one day they might be accountable in court. Way to go, these “Green Recovery” men. Passing this issue around like a hot potato. A dangerous game for the last manager.
A year ago, on rue d’Enghien, no one had the heart to laugh. In less than two years the personnel has gone through one crisis after another, multiple management changes and restructuring, increasingly difficult relations between photographers and the people in charge of editing, of selling…
Rue d’Enghien was where all of these agencies were regrouped, and soon became the Père-Lachaise cemetery where photographic prints would fly away like leaves in the wind, while papers from laywers, bailiffs, and court summons would pile higher and higher on the floors. Everyone was in shock, just as the passengers from the Titanic would have been.
A little visit to the agency
2011, January 19th, Wednesday at 7pm. I arrive under heavy rains to the offices of the Gamma-Rapho agency. Finally after moving out of boulevard Arago, Denfert-Rochereau square, just next to the Montparnasse Cemetery, they were moved to the outskirts of Vanves, then over to the right bank on rue d’Enghien, in offices rented by Hachette Filipacchi Photo and later by Eyedea. And now Gamma is back at the Denfert-Rochereau office! Return to the sources? A return home, either way, as the former Gamma partners, left out after the sale to the Lagardère group, had invested in the property.
François Lochon is late. He apologized profusely. “I leave tomorrow to Madagascar, and I absolutely must buy something at the FNAC… Will you wait for me?” The man is disarming : straightforward, “rough” for some, “vulgar” for others, with a charm used by men who make things happen, ready to draw his sword, as if their action would change the fate of humanity. Vivacious as his Champagne birthplace, either we love him or we hate him. But we respect one another. “Go on”, I tell him… “You can dig around and talk to anyone my friend!” he replies as he puts on his scooter helmet
Nine months later, where are we at?
The savior of agencies, the savior of Gamma, the savior of Rapho, the man who declared on April 26th, 2010, in front of the Tribunal court in Paris that he would « take over the trust and Eyedea’s societies », has finally returned from running an errand at the FNAC.
We leave for dinner at Gamma-Rapho’s canteen. « What do you want to know ? », François Lochon asks me spryly as he does before we settle in at the table.
« We were sold for 2.5 million euros in nine months. » He pauses. I calculate that this makes about 3.5 million euros per year, not far – or too close – to the turnover objective presented in court : 3.6 million. (note : totals elaborated by Bertrand Eveno, before he separated from François Lochon, to join Abaca press in the middle of the hearings, another candidate for taking over the funds).
And the trust ? François Lochon brushes the word away with his hand. « I don’t have anything to lose. » The trust in question is a group of deeds in which the associates of Eyedea did not include the photographic archives held in full ownership by the agencies, essentially the Keystone archive, Reporters Associés and Gamma. Lawyer and judicial administrator Mr. Valliot attacked this trust, the beneficiaries decreased and the final judgment should not intervene before one year, at the rhythm where the parties would be scrapped in the court. Only at that time would we know to whom these photographs belong, photos that have no inventory!
The first time I met François Lochon, it was Monday, March 22nd, 2010, rue d’Enghien in Paris. It was 2pm : there he was, slumped in a chair in the hall, holding a cell phone to his ear and a magazine in his other hand. A typical press photographer.
We were waiting for Mr. Valliot, who had been requested by the Tribunal to get the affair out of this quagmire. He still recalls this unforgettable moment in which the three candidates-buyers presented their project to the employees of Eyedea, whose jobs were threatened by redundancy, during a general assembly.
The candidates-buyers were wearing suits, while Lochon was in jeans, a bomber jacket and a polo, naturally.
On this day, in front of the dumbfounded group of employees, François Lochon blurted out: Excel charts “piss me off, as do alumni of the ENA.” And add to that, the calculating, the scheming and the desperate kind he can also live without. He wants to give back to photojournalism everything that photojournalism gave to him.
Mr. Valliot : “In all of my career as a judicial administrator, I have never been confronted with such a discourse from the part of the buyer…/… Thank you sir to allow me to live this. It is the first time I’ve heard an approach in which the buyer said to the employees: I don’t know yet what I’m going to do, but I love this company!”
Since then, the new company Gamma-Rapho has hired over twenty employees (there were more than 70 at the time of Eyedea), and has also freed itself from the ill-fated and consequent financial burden of three “protected employees” and has set back in motion the digitalization of their photo stock. “We are scanning 300 pictures a day”, says François Lochon and adds, “There are 66,000 available at Getty. It’s working very well! I believe we can quickly reach selling 100 photographs per day.”
A bit of truth on the figures… To begin with, no one knows exactly how many photographs are stored in Gamma-Rapho: 20 million, or more? Only between 800,000 and a million have been digitalized… There’s work to be done!
“A mine of negatives”
“If there’s anything that has enabled me to evolve since the beginning, it’s the possibility of remaining a press and production agency”, explains François Lochon. “It’s impossible.” Absolutely clear. “Our wealth is the stock and the production provided by our photographers”
“But in regards to Tunisia… We’ve accomplished an amazing editing: we have everything from the independence to Ben Ali at home alone facing the sea”. François Lochon only swears allegiance to the archives.
There are some jewels in the Gamma-Rapho catalogue. The heritage photographers, “I prefer the legendary photographers”, explains François Lochon. Those from Rapho? “The Doisneau sisters have signed, Sabine Weiss also… I’ve foolishly lost Janine Niepce, but most of Rapho’s photographers have stayed, as my friend Hans Silvester.” After “the legends”, there is the Keystone collection, “a gold mine” according to Albert Raymond who has been watching over them for thirty years.
“It’s true that the joy in this story is to see the wonderful editing that can be made. There are amazing pictures!”, exclaims enthusiastically one of the former Gamma staffers that followed Lochon’s call, Hervé Tardy. Nicole Benoit, the previous agency “accountant”, is also back. And the other former employees? “I’ve been abandoned by a few of them”, states François Lochon. A wound that remains like a deep scar.
Hervé Tardy has worked for Gamma from 1987 to 1992 on “projects in development : Gamma Magazine, and Copyright. In 1992 I moved away from Gamma with Copyright. I couldn’t understand Gamma anymore. Copyright is still active and employs 25 people, a small honest business. The same size as Gamma-Rapho… I’ve accepted an informal mission to try to get things back in motion.”
As most of the staff, Hervé Tardy is optimist. “Reasonably”, he explains “We’re dealing with a company that is still healing, but with a staff that is still fully immersed in photography. We’ve overwhelmed them by talking about figures, plans, restructuring. The company must rediscover it’s vocation, that of tomorrow.”
January 28, 2011