MORRO-CASTLE-burning-at-sea.jpgMorro Castle burning at sea, 1934 © International News Photos, Inc.

At the end of the 1920s Paris witnessed the birth of the weekly Match, conceived as the sporting version of L’Intransigeant, and simultaneously the creation of the Dephot Agency, the first to provide complete photographic records to the press.

Pierre Assouline, Henri Cartier-Bresson: A Biography (2005), p. 63

For years, I have wondered what/when the first photo agency was. However, I cannot really take Assouline seriously here. Dephoto was founded in 1928. Associate Press was distributing photographs by mail in 1927, but it seems clear from works comprised of syndicated photos (such as Pare Lorenz’s The Roosevelt Year in 1934) that there were a variety of other picture agencies, such as Acme News Pictures, long before AP got involved. A big shake-out occurred in the 1930s with the advent of wirephoto, leaving AP and UPI as the main players in the US. The point being, though, that I suspect that picture agencies or syndicates probably sprung up not long after national distribution of illustrated weeklies like Harper’s and the Illustrated London News began in the 1850s or 1860s. I’ll bet that it occurred at around the same time in several countries, with international distribution coming just before the turn of the century.

As a lark, I was googling around looking for some dates and found this interesting bit regarding the mail distribution of images on the AP history page:

On rare occasions, the AP would use the AT&T; picture transmission system to send a picture of special urgency from its origin to a distribution point.

In virtually every instance, however, delivery could take up to 85 hours. An example: When the ocean liner Moro Castle caught fire off the New Jersey coast in 1934, an AP photographer flew over the vessel and made shot after shot of the flaming scene. The negatives were then processed in New York and original negatives sent via air mail to key distribution centers in Chicago and Los Angeles. The pictures were printed and redistributed by train and mail.

Compare/contrast this version with a contemporary report regarding AP’s coverage from Time, September 24, 1934:

The blackened hulk of the T. E. L. Morro Castle was hardly cold last week before newsphoto agencies leaped headlong into the advertising pages of Editor & Publisher to tell the trade how they trounced their competitors in the race for pictures of this latest marine catastrophe. All the boasting was done by Acme Newspictures and International News Photos at the expense of their common enemy, the Associated Press.

Fundamentally the warfare between Associated Press, Hearst’s International News, and Scripps-Howard’s Acme should be three-cornered. But last spring AP drove the other two into a defensive alliance by announcing plans for a $1,000,000-a-year telephoto system which would flash all the day’s newspictures to all the AP’s clients within a few minutes of their taking (TIME, May 7). A few clients have already begun to install equipment, but no date has been set for starting the service. Meanwhile Acme and International have been working hand in glove.

When the Morro Castle’s SOS flashed into Manhattan, weather along the coast was vile. The average commercial airplane pilot would have hesitated long before flying a cameraman offshore in the dark, wind, and rain. But International and Acme had classified lists of pilots, including certain ones who had the equipment and the courage to fly through anything. At about 7 a. m. two such pilots took off from New York with International and Acme cameramen, returned three hours later within five minutes of each other, with magnificent pictures of the burning vessel. Somehow AP was left at the post.

Last week’s trade-paper advertisements rubbed it into AP unmercifully. International News’s spread bluntly stated: “The Cleveland News, first newspaper to be supplied with Associated Press Telephoto, RELIED exclusively on International News Photos for first pictures of the burning Morro Castle.” That jibe was mild compared to Acme’s. The latter in a two-page layout showed facsimiles of the New York World-Telegram and the New York Sun the day of the disaster. The former, labeled 12:15 p. m., bore a large picture by Acme of the liner ablaze. The Sun, labeled 4 p. m., carried a stodgy still of the Morro Castle in her prime. The credit line was Associated Press Photo. Across the top of the advertisement streamed this headline:


But last week’s set to over newsphoto supremacy in the pages of Editor & Publisher was generally considered only a mild prelude to the cut-throat battle ahead, if and when AP’s telephoto service opens fire.

It just goes to show you how versions of the same chain of events can be spun. Then, as now, superior technology doesn’t always win the day.