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.
These days, the British native and former London-based journalist heads a paparazzi empire. The company has supplied the photography for 500 magazine covers over the last five years, he says, adding that Splash News sells photos in close to 70 countries. "I was amazed when we hit the million dollar (mark) in revenues," says Smith, who drives a Bentley. "Now I am laughing about it."
Celebrity news from the company's field offices around the world have trickled in overnight. As he does every morning, news editor Paul Tetley delivers a brief status report: Jennifer Lopez is in Chile and allegedly sleeping with someone from her team of dancers. Irish singer Sinéad O'Connor plans to get married, for the fourth time, in Las Vegas. A rumor from England says that Prince William's wife, Kate, is pregnant.
And, of course, there's always Alec Baldwin. "He refused to shut off his mobile on a flight yesterday," Tetley reports. The actor allegedly became verbally abusive and was ordered off the plane. It's a mini scandal -- and a hit for Splash News.
A Vast Intelligence Operation
Indeed, the celebrity news agency thrives on the missteps of the stars. "We always used to say 'Your misfortune is our fortune,'" Smith readily admits. Being in the right place at the wrong time -- for the celebrities at least -- is the art of the paparazzi, who ply their trade with the virtuosity of skilled investigators.
The agency employs roughly 1,000 photographers across the world and operates an extensive network of paid informants. Smith has his "tipsters" in hotels, restaurants, theaters, hospitals and airports, including about 100 doormen, bartenders and chauffeurs in Los Angeles alone. Among other things, Splash News uses this network of tipsters to keep track of who is flying when and where, and it closely monitors publicly accessible police reports.
"Hardly anything happens in this city without our finding out about it," says Smith, who claims he could find almost anyone within a day. For this knowledge, he depends primarily on his photo reporters, a close-knit group that refers to itself as the CIA, or "Celebrity Intelligence Agency."
"The job is a bit like bird-watching," Smith says. "You have to have a certain tenacity, and you have to be able to blend in."
And be fast, he could add. Indeed, Smith's photographers can transmit their photos directly to the editorial office via a high-speed cell-phone network, thereby giving customers access to the images within seconds.
"People pay for speed," Smith explains. "The first picture runs; the second just doesn't."
Out on the Hunt
Owing to this pressing need for speed, Splash photographer Darren Banks always has his Canon EOS 1D Mark IV within reach. The compact 36-year-old is wearing white sneakers and jeans. He was once a marksman with the British Army. "It's the same training, exactly the same business: Have a recon, shoot the prey," he says in a strong British accent, maneuvering his large SUV out of a parking spot.
We drive toward Hollywood, the 20-square-mile (50-square-kilometer) zone surrounding Sunset Boulevard that is the hunting grounds of the paparazzi. Banks always drives up and down the same 12 blocks, along Melrose Avenue, Rodeo Drive and Robertson Boulevard, past "Ivy," a restaurant popular with celebrities, the "Boa" steakhouse and the Fred Segal boutique. Eventually, he heads toward Beverly Hills, where the stars live.
In Benedict Canyon, Banks monitors the situation in front of David and Victoria Beckham's $22-million (€17-million) mansion. A few blocks later, he drives past Tom Cruise's former house.
Banks knows the area like the back of his hand. Three months before Cruise's daughter Suri was born, Banks practically lived in front of the estate's gate, sitting in his car from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day while taking only short breaks. He calls the practice of waiting for weeks on end for just the right opportunity "doorstepping."
At times, he says, there were eight paparazzi lurking in front of the house, but "in the end, I got the largest number of exclusive photographs." The haul consisted of eight "sets" of photos, little vignettes from the life of the Cruise family that are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Voyeurism and Pride
This form of journalism is profitable because the Internet has created a huge new market for the big-game hunters of photojournalism. Magazines like Us Weekly and People, as well as newspapers like the British tabloid Daily Mirror and the German tabloid Bild, are still important customers. But, these days, Smith primarily sells his photos to celebrity websites, such as tmz.com, eonline.com and perezhilton.com, which have something to say about every shopping trip of a given celebrity. Splash News assembles about 200 photo sets of small episodes from the lives of the stars. With these photos and archive images, the company sells about 10,000 photos a day, making it the world's largest dealer of voyeuristic content.
With success, however, comes the pressure to liberate the company from its shady image. Indeed, Smith expends a lot of effort touting his company as a "legitimate news agency" and insisting that Splash News' reporters are well-trained journalists and photographers. "We consider ourselves the gentleman on the block," he says. "There are a lot of rogues out there," he adds, referring to photographers only out there to make a quick buck. "They are all rubbish."
Allegedly Less Scrupulous Upstarts
Francois Regis Navarre is one these "rogues" -- and someone Smith would prefer to see banished to the deserts of California. After serving as a war reporter in Iraq and Cambodia for the French newspaper Le Monde, Navarre founded the X17 photo agency in 1996. Since then, the 49-year-old Frenchman has scored some of the biggest coups in the paparazzi world.
For example, the world has Navarre to thank for photos of Britney Spears shaving her head. Navarre also claims to have been the first to know about Michael Jackson's death because, as he says, one of his men managed to take a few shots of the inside of the ambulance carrying the singer.
Navarre lives on Amalfi Drive, an exclusive street in Pacific Palisades, and he also owns a beach house in Malibu. Paparazzi photos have made him a rich man, with his company reportedly generating roughly $10 million in annual revenues.
Others in the paparazzi world despise him because he doesn't employ professional photographers. Instead, his team is primarily composed of immigrants from countries like Brazil, whom he pays a low flat fee every month for the rights to their photos. He instructs his photographers not to take pictures of stars from far away but, rather, to "flash" them at close range, as he calls it. "I want to have eye contact with the stars," Navarre says.
In fact, Navarre has a reputation for occasionally playing fast and loose with the law. For example, California law holds that a person cannot be photographed if a "reasonable expectation of privacy" exists. But, as Navarre sees it, the precise meaning of the words "reasonable expectation" is a subjective matter. For example, he just published photos of Bradley Cooper, one of the lead actors in the recent hit comedy "The Hangover," with his new girlfriend on the balcony of his house.
"We go as far as we can without breaking the laws," Navarre says. "There is a little anarchist in every good paparazzi."
The Intensity of the Moment
Navarre's cell phone rings. "Kim Kardashian just left her place," he reports. Even if, by Hollywood standards, the reality-TV star (with an estimated annual income of $6 million) is merely a B-list celebrity, photos of her will probably still be worth a few thousand dollars for X17.
Navarre hurries to his silver Porsche Cayenne. "She is going down Benedict?" he shouts into the phone, which will not leave his hands anytime soon. "In a white Rolls-Royce?" On Canon Drive, Navarre pulls up just behind the car carrying the star, while one of his photographers pulls up in the next lane, shooting all the while. "Any competitors around?" Navarre shouts through his car's open window. Within seconds, four other paparazzi speed by, running the next red light.
The convoy comes to a stop in front of a small hair salon on South Doheny Drive. Navarre grabs his camera and takes pictures of the shop through its glass front door while his men take up positions outside the back entrance. There are only 10 steps between the door and the car as it is being parked. The photographers have to be quick.
"How do we do this? Stay close to the door or at the car?" Jack Arshamian shouts to his fellow photographers. For months, the Armenian-American has been following Kardashian wherever she goes. "She knows me; she respects my job," says the former chauffeur, who has been working for Navarre for five months. Eventually, when the star steps out of the salon with her hair freshly done, the clicking of camera shutters sounds like machine-gun fire.
What is still permitted, and what isn't? Which methods are justified by the growing demand for celebrity photos? Though they pride themselves on their professionalism, even the Splash News photographers will admit to taking part in "gang bangs," the term they use for when a group of photographers launches a surprise attack on a star.
Likewise, all of the "paps," as they call themselves, like to show off by telling somewhat far-fetched stories about their own celebrity-hunting experiences. For example, Banks, the former marksman, speaks of his awe for the driving skills of actress Cameron Diaz, who he claims has routinely managed to outrun the powerful SUVs of the photographers in her Toyota Prius.
However, some of his other stories bring to mind the horrifying accident in Paris that took the life of Princess Diana. To this day, many people consider celebrity photographers to be responsible for her death.
For example, Banks says, up to 40 paparazzi chased singer Britney Spears around when she was embroiled in her divorce battle with Kevin Federline. "If you are following a celebrity," he explains, "you build up a box system, and you tend to drive in a convoy. You don't want members of the public to be at risk."
In saying this, Banks is trying to be reassuring. But the paparazzi have no sympathy for the stars. "This is a working town, and fame is something you have to maintain," says Smith, the Splash News chief. "It's like fitness: You have to do it everyday to keep it going; we are part of that."
In 2007, Smith landed the most lucrative deal in company history when Anna Nicole Smith died. The Splash paparazzi took footage of the model-turned-actress en route to the hospital, when she was presumably already dead. His agency raked in more than $1 million from the coup, Smith says. When asked if his work might be considered irreverent, he says: "The marketplace is the greatest democracy in the world. There is a demand for this kind of pictures."
Serving this market is now up to Shenk, the Corbis CEO in Seattle. With the help of Splash News, he hopes to finally turn Corbis into a money-making machine. Twelve Corbis offices and more than 1,000 employees worldwide are now ready to work in the paparazzi-photo business.
"There is a global appetite for celebrity pictures that is insatiable; consumers will never get tired of looking at beautiful people," Smith says.
As recently as 2008, Shenk said that the celebrity-snapshot business was bad for the industry's overall image. But now he raves about photos that, as he says, tell "stories about humanity."
"I don't think that this market will ever go down," he says. "This is about dreams and people's connections to dreams, and that's a perpetual human feeling and instinct that will continue forever."
Shenk recently discussed the acquisition with Corbis founder Bill Gates. "I could assure him that we have incredibly high standards about making sure that ethical lines are not crossed," Shenk says.
Besides, he adds, Gates knows perfectly well that he is also part of the celebrity world. "I fully expect that Splash will cover him," Smith says.