Rex Features is a fixture of the British media industry. It celebrates its 60th anniversary this year. Founded in a front room in 1954 by husband-and-wife team Frank and Elizabeth Selby, it has provided news, celebrity and royal imagery globally for six decades, in the process turning into a global media operation, while remaining headquartered in a former ragged school near Fleet Street in London.
The transition to being a 24 hour operation in the last five years has really made Rex a force to be reckoned with. They have two shifts, with London handing over to LA, so they can distribute content throughout the 24 hour news cycle.
The Selbys finally retired in 2011, after a major innings by any measure. Getty Images was going to snap Rex up but when the proposed deal was referred to the Competition Commission both parties pulled out of the sale. Uncertainty about the future of the agency ceased after a management buyout led by Larry Lawson, Rex’s existing Director of Sales, with the backing of business advisor Miguel Ferro and other personal investors. Parts of the industry breathed a sigh of relief.
What really helped Rex take off during the film era was that it was ideally placed to make use of advances in newspaper use of colour images. Rex opened their own on-site colour lab to speed up film processing. Teams of motorcycle couriers hurtled around between news desks. In 1981, the agency raised its profile dramatically with its coverage of the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. Its fast and comprehensive service beat many other agencies into the pages of newspapers and magazines around the world. With the introduction of colour reproduction in UK national newspapers and the increasing demand for celebrity and entertainment images Rex grew considerably during the next twenty years and made a successful transition to digitisation with its highly regarded website whilst retaining the company’s traditional character and highly personalised service.
Rick Colls, Rex’s Director of Operations has been with the company for 30 years and seen the whole photo industry transition from the front row. “The industry has changed so much in the last five to ten years. Digital capture and distribution has allowed so many more photographers a platform and the overheads are lower. This has resulted in a ubiquity of content in the news, editorial and celebrity markets. We find the marketplace a lot more competitive. And there is the enormous threat of Getty – every day, we go head to head with them.”
He adds, “The fees are still tumbling. Newspapers are constantly trying to drop the prices of their bought-in images.”
“We’ve got quite a lot of good things going for us. We’ve been moving into new areas. Sport is a key one. We covered the [Soccer] World Cup for the first time this year and Commonweath Games. We have just completed a project to scan 300,000 of the Daily Mail’s archive prints, keyword, index and host them on our website.”
“We are changing as our industry demands change. We are finding new content, new areas, for example, we host the ITV archive – they have 60 years of programmes. Our photographers are on-set for all of their daytime shows, so we have exclusivity – you can only get those images from us.”
In 2008, Rex acquired the Los Angeles-based Berliner Group of photographic companies, with the aim of strengthening Rex’s presence in the USA and guaranteeing a reliable supply of high-quality celebrity portraiture and coverage of “red carpet” events from the US. Celebrity images are a big part of their offering, with photographers in London, NY and LA. They cover the Oscars and the Emmys and have both staff and freelances for red carpet and pap work. They have a daily feed of the latest film stills from the Everett Collection in New York, who they represent in the UK. They are also now shooting assignments, primarily for PR companies and using their leverage and reputation to place these with major media companies.
In 2013 they helped to rescue SIPA, Rex’s longstanding French partners who had been supplying images to them since 1968 but had recently got into difficulties . Other partners include Xinhua in China and they have agencies on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide, which results in what Rick calls, “Some pretty heartbreaking images.”
Perhaps Rex is most famous for its coverage of celebrities. Some of the most iconic images that are seared into the popular consciousness are from Rex. Elizabeth Hurley in the Versace Safety Pin Dress that started her career. Michael Jackson dancing on the Billie Jean video set. Kate Moss, David Bowie, Gwyneth Paltrow, Madonna, the Beckhams, Lady Gaga, more Royals than you can shake a stick at. Their images of the music, lifestyles and fashions of the sixties and seventies is magnificent and they hold a remarkable archive of popular culture from the fifties to today.
While it is dangerous to make predictions, after 60 years, Rex looks like being a fixture on the international media scene for a good few decades yet.
See a selection of images from Rex’s 60th Anniversary compilation here:
Julian Jackson is a writer with extensive experience of picture research, whose main interests include photography and the environment. His website is www.julianjackson.co.uk. He also runs a Picture Research by Distance Learning Course www.picture-research-courses.co.uk. Linked-in profile.