Art and commerce
One year later
On April, 6, 2010, just thirteen months ago, the Paris courts placed the then bankrupt Eyedea photo agency group (formerly Hachette Filipacchi Photos) under the direction of photographer and former President of Gamma, François Lochon. The nomination occurred shortly after Lochon’s March 30th declaration in front of the courts that he would “make it his business” to have the mortgage pending over Keystone France and a selection of Gamma’s archives covered by former shareholders. One year later, what has changed?
On Wednesday, April 13, when I arrived at the new Gamma-Rapho headquarters at 104 boulevard Arago, Raymond Depardon had just left. He had stopped by to pick up the rushes that François Lochon found when rifling through the many boxes he had just inherited.
“I don’t give interviews” said Depardon, one of Gamma’s most famous former staffers, over the phone. “I am making a movie from my archives that should be released next year… I don’t have anything else to say about Gamma. Well, the only thing that I can say is that I hope François Lochon succeeds!”. Reading the dedication about photography hanging over the director’s desk, there is no doubt that Lochon is more than a little bit proud of these good luck wishes.
“Raymond Depardon was very moved to be inside the agency” said some witnesses. “He spoke for a long time about the agency, about photography and its evolution. He is very realistic and a bit doubtful about photojournalism’s move into art galleries, even if he assured us that the one recently opened in Paris by Magnum sold well.”
“He kissed François wholeheartedly. We wonder why he doesn’t just bring his archives back to Gamma. And the dedication… That will thrill the people at Magnum.” commented another.
Hope and Photographers
Interviewing photographers about this first year at the new agency was not an easy task. Those who left Gamma during the different Eyedea financial reduction periods were particularly talkative. They are generally not supportive of François Lochon either for not taking them back on staff, or for neglecting to give them a sufficient percentage of sales profits.
Despite its name, Gamma-Rapho is no longer an official press agency. In France, in order to use this term, a company must have a license from the « Commissions paritaires des publications et agences de presse ». The photographers (journalists or not), are paid only for copyright use, which complicates their acquisition of an official press card.
That said, Raphaël Gaillarde, Laurent Van der Stockt and other lesser known photographers continue to turn to Gamma-Rapho for distribution. “No one has left since I took over the agency” comments Lochon. Recently, there were even a few returns, including Patrick Aventurier who is once again being distributed by Gamma.
“And we have been discovering a host of interesting and unused pictures in the archives” adds Lochon. “One example: Dominique Nabokov, the writer’s daughter, took some magnificent portraits of Marie Trintignant… And the truth is that ze covered all of the recent world events: Japan, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and featured some fabulous picture stories”
For Rapho, the news is about the same. Aside from the “Niepce collection that I missed, the “legends” of Rapho, Doisneau, Weiss, Silvester, all signed with me” exclaimed the enthusiastic director.
“I left my archives with them”, commented Sabine Weiss. “They have so many of my stories. I have been with Rapho since 1952… But I have always kept my personal clients. Even during the Barbara and Raymond Grosset period, I didn’t frequent the agency on the rue d’Alger. I saw the family grow and disappear. After Barbara and Raymond’s death, no one really took care of the pictures.”
“This week,” comments she who qualifies herself as an “old woman”, “the agency sent me a book cover project. I don’t even remember which picture the editor had selected. In fact, I left everything with Rapho except the exhibitions I recovered during that critical time when no one really knew what was going to happen. But when the people working at Rapho today ask me for my copyright authorization, I always agree. Of course, financially, it isn’t the same… But prices have changed so much! My last two statements were pretty thin. The last one was only 470 euros.”
“Personally, I can’t complain” says Hans Silvester. “My publications are increasing, but I must confess, I work very hard! And you know, some photographers don’t realize just how much times have changed. The day when everyone stopped off at Rapho to have a cup of tea is long gone! Here is a revealing anecdote: I was recently in New York. Time-Life used to take up an entire building. Today, they have rented out nearly all of their offices to other companies. We photographers must also adapt to the 21st century…”
“We signed a distribution agreement with François Lochon last January” says Francine Deroudille-Doisneau, one of Robert Doisneau’s two daughters. “It is new, but for the moment, I am very happy about it. I don’t know how it is going to evolve, but after so many years of struggling with people who spoke politely but did nothing, we now have someone we can talk to who knows and loves photography with whom we can speak freely. We accuse him of being a bit harsh, but it’s better to have someone abrupt and honest who acts on his words than the opposite.” “Furthermore” she adds, “I must say he keeps his word and when we decide something, we see it in place within a week.”
The agreement with Getty Images? "Personally, I don’t have a problem with that. On the contrary, these past few years we were constantly obliged to call our foreign agents to collect copyright fees for local publications. With Getty, for the moment, it appears to run smoothly. And frankly, I get along very well with François. Of course, our case is quite particular as we are working with existing material, unlike practicing professionals or beginners in the field. In any case, it is courageous to undertake such an enterprise.
The man of challenges
Courage and brutality, those are the two words we hear most often about François Lochon. “He was so impolite, and insulting” says François Caron, former star salesman for Gamma, clearly angry with the head of Gamma-Rapho. “Last September during the Visa pour l’Image festival, he hounded me for three days. He wanted to build a sales agreement with Getty Images for whom I had been a consultant since 2006. Like him, I loved Gamma, I promised to help him. That’s what I did. He signed a worldwide distribution agreement, excluding France, for all the archives of Gamma, Keystone, Rapho, etc…”
“Last February,” continues Caron, “Getty was trying to make further budget cuts and this guy, who I helped, who I defended, couldn’t think of anything better than to suggest that they fire me!”. Nevertheless, this former Gamma salesman honestly admitted that his contract had just expired and that he benefited from a temporary extension to help the agency better integrate the Gamma archives into their database. “I am on good terms with them, I have no complaints about them. I even had a nice departure party. As for Lochon…”
When questioned, Lochon made no denials. “I am not the one who fired him, it was Getty. But it’s true that he disappointed me. I was hoping for a bit of imagination, some creativity, but he is old school… You have to understand, the Gamma salesmen were legends, the guys who sold exclusive pictures for a mint. But when you have a scoop in your hands, even a dog would know how to sell it. Last century, we could pay high priced chauffeurs, that is no longer the case.”
“Today, everything happens on the internet. Photographic production is sent on line and clients directly choose what they want. That is another one of Gamma-Rapho’s problems, we inherited an obsolete computer system. Which explains the importance of the agreement with Getty Images that would provide us with much needed financial investments.”
“In one year, we were obliged to re-index 235,000 Gamma pictures and 61,000 Keystone pictures to meet with Getty’s norms.” says Lochon. “That meant that we had to open each digital file manually in order to change the IPTC code. It was a lot of work, and was very costly!”
For Hervé Tardy, formerly of Gamma and now Director of Copyright, called in by François Lochon to do a “friendly audit”, that is the principal challenge for the new company, and they should be careful about their budget cuts. Impossible to get any other comments. Nevertheless, and for the most part, the atmosphere at the boulevard Arago office is pleasant. Contrary to the rue d’Enghien Eyedea/HFM headquarters where everything was separated, here there is an open space where people talk to each other…” commented one employee.
For Mohamed Lounès, a staff representative and elected union member, “things are much better, but there is still room for management to improve…” Undoubtedly Gamma-Rapho must do better, sell better, because the company continues to lose tens of thousands of Euros per month. “We had a turnover of 3,2 million Euros over the first twelve months” affirms Lochon.
“We will improve as the Getty partnership takes off and our sales improve, but that isn’t enough. We must continue to cut spending. I hired 27 staff members, several of whom have comfortable salaries, and I absolutely want to break even in 2011. I don’t intend to fire anyone, but I won’t make any more investments to cover losses. I would be happy to invest in the future, but not in the past…”
Indeed, the past remains delicate, with several cases still being treated in the Paris courts. On one side, judiciary administrator Maitre Valliot is attacking former shareholders Green Recovery and Verdoso Medias to lift the mortgage, a trust agreement, over, for the most part, Keystone and Gamma. A battle continued by Maitre Gorrias, a judiciary liquidator. On the other hand, some former shareholders, fighting amongst themselves, are also attacking the April 6 judgment that put the company under the direction of François Lochon… For them, the courts handed over archives that belonged to them. For one year, the legal battles continue. For now, everything is on hold until the next May 17 court date, but it is likely that nothing will be decided on that day, and that the battle will continue for many more months.
Without waiting, unworried about the legal battles and “what people might be saying”, François Lochon is moving forward as the head of one of the world’s greatest photojournalistic collections. “You know, coco,” he says in his habitual style, “they can’t understand me. I know what death is… Every day that goes by I fight and enjoy life. But now, I have to run, sorry, I have a rendez-vous with Jean-Paul in Rome…”
It was Saturday, April 30, and the Director of Gamma-Rapho was leaving to “cover” the beatification of Jean Paul II who he had covered repeatedly during his many travels… “After Japan, I was radioactive, and on Sunday, I will be blessed! You’ll see coco, Gamma-Rapho is alive!” he announced over the phone with a hearty laugh.