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May 2008

Canon recently announced its headline sponsorship of the Getty Images Gallery in London, the agency’s only gallery and its most public face. Mike Stanton discovers how it combines the commercial with the ability to mine the historical wealth of its world-famous Hulton Archive.

Walk a few metres north off the super-hyped retail mecca that is London’s Oxford Street and you’ll enter one of the most diverse and intriguing neighbourhoods in the city. Fitzrovia, or as some of the more trendsetting estate agents like to call it, NoHo (North of Soho), is a part grid, part maze, of mainly Georgian and Victorian streets and buildings housing everything from TV production companies and advertising giants to fashion wholesalers, minimalist coffee bars and traditional, corner pubs.

So when, three and half years ago, the Getty Images Gallery moved from Chelsea into an old wholesale clothing space on the corner of Eastcastle and Great Titchfield Streets, it made perfect sense: a commercial gallery with a strong sense of style and desire to be the best in town. It’s 280m2 is frequented by everyone from the serious buyer to the lunch-time office worker standing on the street with a sandwich surprised that such a haven of calm and curiosity can be enjoyed free of charge before dashing headlong back to the ‘real world’.

© Slim Aarons/Getty Images

Film star Joan Collins relaxes with her pink poodle on her pink bed.

Unlike some galleries, it has an open and unintimidating air; buyers and passers-by drift among the staff no doubt busy organising an exhibition or event a year or more in advance. Beyond the main room the pictures of the famous and iconic seem almost to beckon the browser, as an old friend might, into a place where staff desks jostle for space with dozens more images complete with their price tags. The damage starts at around €75 for a 10x8-inch print and rises to several thousand euros. All are hand printed from the original negative and they can take a week or two to produce. High up on the wall to the left is Slim Aarons’ 1955 picture of Joan Collins relaxing on her pink bed with her pink poodle. This limited edition print will fetch around €12,500.

Further round to the left is a large, black and white picture of horses and hounds gathered at the start of a hunt in rural England. Here sits Louise Garczewska, director of Getty Images Gallery, “It’s my favourite picture,” she says half turning round to admire it once again. She has a lot to choose from. The walls are crammed frame to frame with familiar faces.

Garczewska has been running the Gallery for the past seven and a half years, and insists that there is nowhere else like it in the world. “We are unique,” she says. “We are the only photographic gallery in the world with its own archive, with as many images as it has.” This is Getty Images’ only gallery and is the agency’s most public face.

© Dan Kendall

Louise Garczewska, director of Getty Images Gallery, outside the Gallery in London’s Fitzrovia.

Almost all of the 14 or so shows the Gallery puts together each year are sourced from the massive Hulton Archive in west London. This collection of 70 million images going back to the beginning of photographic history is where what Garczewska calls “deep, far research” takes place. “Every exhibition takes about eight to 10 months to organise,” she says. “Only around 1% of the 70 million images in the archive are currently in a digital format. Although we always have a few of the favourite images – Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Muhammad Ali – we’d also look to do research on imagery that has never been seen or printed before.”

No one person knows the true extent of the Hulton Archive, and in some ways Getty Images is discovering what pictures it has through staging its exhibitions, or working with clients and sponsors. “Everything is catalogued in one shape or another, but some of it is still in collections in the brown paper it was packed in many years ago. Someone doing research will sometimes stumble across and Man Ray or a Cartier-Bresson.”

Her eight-strong team includes researchers at the Archive and together they plan exhibitions, corporate events and sponsorship tie-ins, not to mention private dinners and charity cocktail parties in the Gallery itself. Canon recently became the headline sponsor of the Gallery, and will begin its support with the Peacocks & Pinstripes men’s fashion exhibition, running from 6 to 28 June.

Ideas for events come through a sponsor, an anniversary or perhaps a collection that Getty Images wants to promote. In November 2005 the Getty Images Gallery staged ‘Be Cointreauversial’, a tie with the famous drinks brand. It was a 50-image show of “photographs celebrating women with style and spirit through the decades”. Images ranged from a playful Audrey Hepburn relaxing on a film set and Elizabeth Taylor sipping a drink whilst at Jersey airport, to modern-day fashion icon Sienna Miller clutching a cocktail after her London stage début.

© Chris Cole/Getty Images

The London Welsh front row during a match between London Welsh and Newport at Old Deer Park in Richmond, England.

This kind of flexibility and ability to respond to ideas is rare for a single gallery, and its name and clout attracts some leading figures. In the run up to the last Rugby World Cup in 2007 it persuaded Sir Clive Woodward, winning England coach from the 2003 World Cup, to curate ‘Mud and Glory’ an exhibition containing some unseen historical images.

One of the challenges for Garczewska and her team is settling on a theme for an exhibition given the sheer numbers of images available and the range of possibilities they throw up. “It has to have legs,” she says. “The subject has to be strong enough to put together a powerful exhibition, otherwise it doesn’t go ahead.”

A recent exhibition that had more than enough legs was based on the work of world-renowned UK photojournalist Terry Fincher. Images, mainly from the world’s conflict zones and spanning a 50-year career, drew in thousands of people between February and April this spring. “Turnout for the opening night of the Terry Fincher exhibition was incredible – lots of the Fleet Street boys who were obviously inspired by one of our best photojournalists,” says Garczewska.

© Terry Fincher/Getty Images

Weeping Marine, 19th February 1968.

Of his image of the ‘Weeping Marine’ taken during the Vietnam War, Fincher said: “I took this picture on the day I flew out of Hue on a helicopter carrying the bodies of dead Marines. As we rose from the ground we started taking the Viet Cong rounds. The pilots sat on flak jackets to prevent the possibility of a bullet up the arse and several wounded men were propped up on top of the bodies. An injured Marine was crying. I took a photograph because I felt part of him and them all. And I’m sure they felt we were part of them. We had helped carry the bodies onto the aircraft and would help carry them off when we landed.”

The Gallery, with the support of its huge archive, is now a major draw for everyone from shoppers passing by on their way to the Oxford Street sales, to serious collectors and those who simply love the history of photography from its earliest images to the pictures adorning today’s front pages.