Getty’s hostile takeover of 1998

photo of Robert Cavallo and his book, Do I Really Need a Lawyer?
Robert Cavallo photographed in my NoHo studio, November 2001. On the left, book he co-authored in 1979, Do I Really Need a Lawyer?
A high gloss of friendship

I came across this book, Do I Really Need a Lawyer? co-authored by my long-time lawyer, Robert Cavallo. It was published in 1979, just two years before I moved to New York.

He was my business advisor and looked over my important contracts. A second-generation Italian from the Bronx, he had an elegant, two-lawyer office on Park Avenue catering to the photo industry. You know, the so-called “cottage industry” that was later taken over by the giant goliath Getty Images, consisting of photographers, studios, and stock photo agencies.

The receipt was tucked in page 130. This paragraph caught my eye —

photo of a paragraph on page 30 of the book, Do I Really Need a Lawyer?

A “high gloss of friendship” in business relationships explained. Now I understand why it was always so hard to say, when I was offered contracts, that my lawyer will kill me if I don’t have him look at it, or that my lawyer said this or that, feeling like I might offend my new business friend. And why so many photographers just signed on the bottom line without bothering. With Robert Cavallo’s help, I always managed to have fair contracts, and my relationships were friendly.

Robert was a colorful lawyer. He’d say things like, “When I read that, it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up!” and “We got ’em by the short-hairs!” and “They’re blowing sunshine up your skirt!” Robert was like a father figure. In fact, when he was using his power of persuasion on me, he would say that I was like a daughter to him. (Later on, it became, “you’re like a sister to me!”)

I lost my father when I was 30, so I didn’t mind the patronizing at all.

Photo of my dad and me that I keep in my storage closet. Dad owned his own business, an ad agency. He was an eloquent persuasive writer and an ethical businessman. He has always been my inspiration and role model for being a professional creative.

I wasn’t aware of this history, but the book’s co-author, Stuart Kahan, was the Executive Director of the trade association, American Society of Magazine Photographers (ASMP) and Robert Cavallo was their General Counsel in the 1970’s. They ushered in the new era of the Copyright Act of 1976. The new law was greatly advantageous to photographers and was a game-changer for how business would be conducted. I was of the new generation that really benefited. When I moved to New York, I joined the ASMP assistants group to network.  I was well-educated about standard business practices and my rights. Because of all of this, when I found my niche and could actually make a living as a photographer, I was able to have a successful studio in New York for many years.

Among other things, the Copyright Act of 1976 clarified the ownership of residual rights to our photographs. This led to the rise of stock photo agencies – agents that sold commercial and editorial uses to our existing photos for a share of the sale, usually 50%.

“Intellectual property is the oil of the 21st Century” – Mark Getty

Then came J. Paul Getty’s grandson, Mark Getty. He was filthy rich and wanted something to do, so he decided he’d consolidate the photography industry, claiming rights to discovering copyright as if he struck oil.

The “industry” of photographers and stock photographs was just so fragmented, that taking it over was a no-brainer, Mark Getty bragged to the financial press. What a revelation. Photographers are independent, small businesses. The copyrights they own to their photographs are a gold mine! Why should these peons own such valuable intellectual property? Besides, photographers themselves are such pushovers. It will be like taking candy from a baby!

He started with Tony Stone Images in 1995, a stock photo agency I had joined two year prior.  I had become one of their “popular” photographers, having a lot of best-selling photos.

Believe it or not, photographers used to have some power. We created the images that the big media world wanted, and we owned the copyrights. Tony Stone, along with Getty as the new owner, was our agent. We entrusted them with exclusive photographs in exchange for their promise to use their best efforts to license them.  They had a fiduciary duty to us, which is much greater than a straight-up business relationship. It is similar to entrusting a bank with your money.

Tony Stone called me personally the day the sale to Getty was announced, to say that he sold to Getty in order to have the funds to bring us into the digital future, and that he would still be involved, nothing would change except we’d all be making more money.

inside cover of book, Do I Really Need a Lawyer? stamped with "discard"

Yet in the game of opposites, we were totally helpless to the dangerous storm that was upon us. We should have had a union, but it was against the law, supposedly, for individual photographers to unionize.

There was not much Robert Cavallo nor photographers nor ASMP could do. There was nothing the Department of Justice would do, to protect us from the fierce and hostile corporate takeover that was taking place.

The ax comes down in August 1998

Although Getty promised us a digital future, and we were submitting digitized images with the coming website in mind, just one month before the launch of the website in 1998, Getty hit us with a contract they said we had to sign in order to go forward on the web (in spite of all their promises and the self-renewing contracts we had already.) The new contract stripped away our rights and reduced the percentage of our royalties.

logo on Getty Images letterhead, circa 1998
Getty’s 1998 letterhead, a copyright symbol with the “c” made into a G.

The contract, they said, was approved by the PAG – Photographers Advisory Group – a few Tony Stone photographers that had to sign non-disclosure agreements to serve as Getty’s henchmen, (and they were all men). Talk about “a high gloss of friendship” and the abuse of power.

We received extra-large checks that month. Mine had payments for many licenses from sales 18 months prior, that normally should have been paid to us within three months, like my February 3, 1997 Time cover, and 12 other sales from the New York office alone.

Penny Gentieu photos on cover of Time magazine February 3, 1997

The contract came with a letter promising us a lump sum payment of all payments owed to us. For me, it was a sizable sum, for over 1,000 licenses.

Additionally, the timing of the new contract release and the resulting improvements to our systems have enabled us to arrange a one-off lump sum payment of all monies outstanding prior to July 1, 1998. This payment will include all accrued sales prior to July 1, 1998.
Additionally, the timing of the new contract release and the resulting improvements to our systems have enabled us to arrange a one-off lump sum payment of all monies outstanding prior to July 1, 1998. This payment will include all accrued sales prior to July 1, 1998.

The draconian terms of the contract had the entire Tony Stone community of photographers in the U.S. and England up in arms for weeks and months. In the end, though, I was one of the very few photographers who didn’t sign it. Robert Cavallo told me that if I signed it, I would never forgive myself. It was that bad.

Getty Images refused to pay me for all those outstanding payments for four bloody years, until just the right moment when it was to their best advantage. A triple whammy, Getty made, using my money against me.

Withholding royalty payments for a ransom of rights.

Getty Images used our rightful, hard-earned money against us in the nastiest, most hostile, most unfair, most personal corporate takeover there could be – the corporate takeover of individual photographers who were the smallest of small businesses. Up until then, Getty Images owed us fiduciary duty. But with the new contract forced on us in order to go forward in the digital future that they had been promising us as they collected our very best photographs, they stripped us naked of our rights and income in one fell swoop. And if we didn’t sign, our photos would be locked in their jail until our three-year self-renewing contracts were up. Kept off of the web, not promoted, just held hostage to make us lie down and die.

sign it sucker, give me the candy, baby, and I'll give you the money I owe you anyway

Sounds hauntingly familiar — reminiscent of the kidnapping of Mark Getty’s older brother when Mark was a little boy, and grandfather J. Paul Getty’s refusal to pay, causing permanent physical and emotional damage to Mark’s brother over money. It is the subject of the current Academy Award-winning movie, All the Money in the World, and Trust, a current HBO miniseries starring Donald Sutherland.

I have had no further involvement with Getty Images after spending four years in bloody hell just to get my money, but what they have done and what they do still affects me as a copyright owner. It affects us all.

Getty photographs’ downward spiral

Since that 1998 contract, which lowered a photographer’s royalty rates from 50% to 40%, the last I heard, Getty photographers now receive only 20% of a sale.

In addition to the reduction in percentage paid to photographers, the value of photography licenses on Getty’s watch has literally plummeted to being worth next to nothing. Getty Images has managed to greatly squander our intellectual property in just 10 or 15 years, like stock in a stock market crash that will never come back.

The company itself, Getty Images, in those short years has been sold one or two times to other investors. What does Getty Images do now to make money, even if they now make 80%, sometimes 100% of license sales, but not really much since they permanently cheapened photographs to being worth next to nothing?

Getty now offers photos for online use for free! How can they do that? Getty Images makes money by collecting the user’s website data, at photography’s expense. Having wasted our once-valuable photographs, our profession, and our legacy forever, Getty is now into the data-collecting business.

So instead of our profession moving forward and flourishing since the Copyright Act of 1976, the individual artist has been squashed, duped, ripped off and enslaved. Money talks. No justice for the little person. Seems like society has regressed hundreds of years. I can only be thankful that I had what I had when there was something for me to have.

I wrote a book about it. It’s called, Photography v Son of Getty, inspired by Godzilla movies. Then I shredded the book, arranged and photographed the shreddings, sequenced the photos and printed pages, folded and sewed it all up a coptic-bound book, photographed it, framed some photos, and put it in a show. There is nothing like the endorphins that come with the act of creating to wash away the disgust.

click for The Economist full article online
Spitting Images, Wall Street Journal, July 1, 2004

For the late Patsy Felch, whose birthday is today.

Mark Getty in the book, Painfully Rich, on which the movie, All the Money in the World is based.

My list of influential photographers and why

Is that guy on the Rogers High School yearbook cover really saying, “SHIT”???

Sam Abell

When I was a lowly sophomore on the Rogers High School yearbook staff, Sam Abell was an English teacher and the yearbook advisor. He was 24 and really funny, smart and had so much energy.

He told us that we were coming out with a 16,080 page Summer Supplement for the yearbook. But how could that possibly be, it would be so big! We had to wait and see.

The Summer Supplement arrived, and it was less than 1/4 inch thick. It was comb-bound with a tab to stick in the front of the yearbook, 25 pages that were cut in thirds, “2x to the third power,” which created the 16,080 different page combinations.

It was a genius example of thinking out of the box. It was a great teaching moment, and the math lesson was the least of it. And what a lot of amazing photographs! Not only the “original” photography of the students, but famous photos from the Sixties.

Smart, clever, creative, cool. Stuff that just settled into my subconscious about photography and what went into it.  Sam Abell was an inspiration to my nebulous self that had no clue, not even for another six or seven years, that I might actually become a photographer.

Sam Abell left the next year to work for National Geographic — to the top of the world, that was his destiny. It was the most coveted photography job for the most iconic publication, through which his beautiful photos are appreciated by, and inspire, millions of people. We were so lucky to have him to ourselves for that one year.

Robert Frank

In college I majored in painting, my painting teacher, John Botts was a great mentor. He was extremely charismatic and philosophical. He had all the answers. Students followed him around like he was the Pied Piper.

When I discovered photography during my last year of college, I found my thing. There was no going back to painting. Perhaps to John Botts’ relief.

But John Botts thought my photos were really good. The mentor that he was, he gave me a first-edition of Robert Frank’s The Americans (in trade for some of my photos) because he wanted me to know about Robert Frank’s unsentimental, poetic, loose, artistic, and truthful black and white photos. So forevermore, Robert Frank became my favorite photographer..

I still say Robert Frank is my favorite photographer, even though I recently sold the book on Ebay for $1,500. (I am so unsentimental!)

Duane Michals

I loved Duane Michals and his storytelling photos, and I heard he was pretty nice to young wannabees. So I made a trip to New York to show him my work.  He invited me to his studio, but when I got there, he needed to rush off to the bank to get a deposit in, and said that he’d look at my portfolio there.

He sat on a bench at the bank and looked at my portfolio. I brought way too much stuff, including my camera and tripod to memorialize the event. He very kindly played along.

After he looked at my portfolio, I asked him the burning question that I really needed him to answer for me: “Do you think I can move to New York?”

“Why not?” he said, “I did.”

That’s all I needed to hear! Duane Michals gave me permission to move to New York!

Bruce Davidson

I was Bruce Davidson’s first female assistant. I just fell into it. A female colleague in my ASMP assistants’ group had been trying to persuade Bruce Davidson for a very long time to hire a woman – to hire her. He finally offered her a freelance job. But how terrible, she was already booked, and she couldn’t do it! So she passed the opportunity on to me. Bruce Davidson apparently had his mind set on hiring a woman, because he hired me, even though I told him I had never worked with strobes before.

He said, no problem, that I could get familiar with the lighting equipment at his apartment while he was in Vancouver. His wife would let me in. I was to pack up 10 cases of lighting gear and fly with them to San Francisco, where he would meet me from Vancouver, and we would start the job. I would be the only assistant.

The job was an annual report for Celanese – a 10-day shoot spanning seven states. Bruce Davidson realized the very first morning just how much I didn’t know about strobes.

I tried, I really tried! But they didn’t have youtube videos back then!

He told me that after work that day I had to take all of the equipment into my room and learn it, by myself, and stay up all night long if I had to, but I’d better know the strobes inside and out by the next day.

But that wasn’t necessary. We worked 10 hours that day (and every day). By early afternoon that first day, I definitely had the hang of the strobes, and I was totally a pro!

Did I mention that Bruce Davidson was a really hard worker? We started at dawn and worked all day and sometimes getting a break for dinner but most times catching a plane for the next location. He shot tons of film. Even when he wasn’t shooting, he was a demanding boss. He always had to play Scrabble on the plane, in the waiting area, in the cab, wherever, using his magnetic Scrabble board. I never caught a break! But he paid well, $125 a day, which was a lot for 1981. He would say, he worked his assistants hard, but paid them well.

I’m not complaining, and I actually worked for him a few more times after that over the next couple of years. So I feel good about myself!

I learned strobe lighting from Bruce Davidson, and unfortunately (maybe) I picked up his work ethic. But I have yet to own a magnetic Scrabble board.

Annie Liebovitz

I had a great gig processing and printing for Annie Liebovitz during my first couple years in New York.

The t-shirt, above, was made by her first assistant, George Lange, as a joke for her birthday, because Annie Liebovitz had a reputation for screaming at her assistants. She never screamed at me, because I rarely assisted her other than the darkroom work, which was done outside her studio. But I did work on the John Belushi shoot. I was sent home early though, because she liked to be alone with her subjects, so she could try to get them naked for the shot. At least that’s what I understood.

After a few years and I was doing more of my own photo shoots (I had just gotten an assignment from Vogue!), Annie Liebovitz called and asked me to be her studio manager. I didn’t even hesitate before answering — my cocky delusional self told her I couldn’t because I was too busy doing my own thing.

Immediately afterwards, I felt like that was the dumbest thing I ever said. What an amazing photographer to have worked for, and think of the connections I could have made! But in retrospect I feel like I did the right thing, because I have managed to have a pretty nice career in spite of it all. (And I named my daughter Anna.)


The last time I saw Bruce Davidson was in 1985, having run into him at the color lab where I was printing my new baby project — naked floating babies printed life size. I showed him the prints, and he gave me the best compliment ever. “I think you really have something there.”

And I did.


Copacabana 1981

My first job in New York was photographing at the Copacabana, 1981. The film was quickly processed in the back and sloppy prints were made, full of fix, slapped wet in a folder, and then I’d have to try to sell them. I’d be off work at 2am, taking the subway and walking through Washington Square Park alone to get home!

Granddad Pinkerton & Hebe

I was 22 and still in school when I photographed my grandfather in his lazy boy chair, reflecting on the statue of Hebe, goddess of beauty and youth, dislodged from its wall space in their Westmoreland living room, a family heirloom ready for movers to pick up and ship to my aunt in out west. My grandparents were moving out of the house they had lived in for 50 years, to a modern apartment where they would live out their lives, for a couple more years.

Fiberglass patterned curtains, clocks with different times, Hummel figurines on the TV, a bin of magazines by the lazy boy chair accented the 50-year old patina of their household bliss.

In the background, above Hebe’s hand, hung my mother’s oil portrait of my grandfather sitting in his rose garden. I’m close to the same age as my grandfather was then, when my mother painted his portrait. I’m getting up there!

Audrey’s Ribbons

AOPHA stands for Association of Ohio Philanthropic Homes for the Aged. Every year they sponsored a state-wide art show.

These are my mother’s ribbons for awards she won for artwork she made during her last years, when she lived in a nursing home. My mother always won First Place ribbons for the Regional contest, and always placed either First, Second, Third or Fourth in the State contest.

It wasn’t a professional art show and it certainly wasn’t her high point as an artist. But the sense of community and purpose really made her happy and kept her busy at the nursing home, where she lived out her last six years. It was a reciprocal relationship by which the community and the individual benefited from each other equally.

In 2008, ten months before she died, she had a show of her golden-era movie star portraits at the Arts Commission of Greater Toledo’s Parkwood Gallery. The newspapers wrote about the show. It was pretty great. People came to the opening who she worked with fifty years earlier, like the owner of the Deluxe Frame Shop where she had the portraits framed that she made for private and public commissions back in the 50’s and 60’s.

My mother left Toledo in 1973, to live in Albuquerque, Honolulu, and Portland, Oregon, returning to Toledo in 1990.

Mom and me, and Anna and Mom, 2004

A trip through time

At the studio