Paparazzi have a bad reputation for bending the rules to satisfy the world's insatiable demand for celebrity photos. But the business is also incredibly lucrative, something that prompted Bill Gates' Corbis photo agency to buy the world's top paparazzi shop. Some in the industry are trying to free it from its sleazy image, but upstart agencies have few moral qualms.
The place feels like a temple to photography. A giant image of Marilyn Monroe, taken by star photographer Paul Rice in 1956, hangs in the lobby of the Corbis Corporation. Andy Warhol's portrait of John Lennon dominates the company's open-plan office in Seattle's historic Dexter Horton Building.
Printed on fine gauze, it adorns a staircase leading up to the executive floor, where we meet with Gary Shenk. He is wearing jeans and a T-shirt. The dark rings under his eyes suggest he is not getting enough sleep.
Shenk is the CEO of Corbis, one of the world's most renowned high-quality stock photography agencies. The company, owned by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, holds the rights to more than 100 million images. They include the photos of the legendary French agency Sygma, as well as photos from the historic Bettmann Archive, whose inventory dates back as far as the American Civil War.
The agency sells icons of photography: a nude of Brigitte Bardot in the bathtub; Albert Einstein sticking out his tongue; the black-and-white photos of Vietnamese children fleeing from America napalm bombs.
Recently, however, this traditional citadel of quality photography has been selling more trivial fare: There's "Her Royal Hotness" Pippa Middleton wearing pink jeans in London, model Kate Moss drinking and smoking on the beach and French President Nicolas Sarkozy jogging in a blue T-shirt on the Côte d'Azur.
The change results from Corbis' acquisition of Splash News, the global market leader for paparazzi photos. It is a breakthrough for a business that, until recently, was still viewed as the street urchin of the industry.
The thugs of the telephoto lens are becoming presentable -- and mainly because the pictures they take can be worth a lot of money. In fact, Shenk estimates "that anywhere from 50 to 60 percent of images that are sold into media these days are entertainment images," most of them taken by paparazzi.
Shenk refers to the celebrity snapshots as "candid celebrity photography" --- "candid" in the sense that they are "taken from real life." They revolve around themes of love, sex and tears -- and the satisfying feeling that even the rich and beautiful can occasionally have their embarrassing moments and failures in life.
In the Lair of the Paparazzi
It takes a trip south from Seattle to Los Angeles to discover how the paparazzi industry works. The small editorial office of Splash News is located at the top of a narrow staircase in a building in the city's western Venice district. The covers of celebrity magazines hang on the walls like trophies. A large photo shows a group of paparazzi at work, bunched together like students posing for a class portrait.
The people at Splash News are proud of their work -- and of their successes. Company revenues grew by more than 20 percent in the last year alone, says Kevin Smith, one of its founders.