How did Getty Images Start?

September 29, 2022
Written by:
Chris Garin

The History of Getty Images & the Curse of the Gettys

Surely, you’ve seen Getty Images watermarks on photos you’ve seen online.

Getty Images is a British-American company most known for selling stock photos online. They make more than a billion dollars a year in revenue.

That is an incredible amount of money for a business that no one of us would really consider revolutionary or game-changing. The business model of Getty Images is simply beautiful.

There are two parts to this story:

Part 1 is about how John Paul Getty’s grandson, Mark Getty started Getty Images in 1995.

Part 2 covers the story of John Paul Getty. The Getty who started it all. Part 2 is important because, without the billions of John Paul Getty, I doubt it if Mark Getty could’ve launched Getty images.

You can also listen to this on the podcast

Why I found this story interesting

The interesting part is less focused on Getty Images as a company, but more on the family behind Getty Images, the Getty family.

The Getty family is riddled with bad luck, not with money, but in their relationships.

So you’ve surely encountered that convo or that idea where people let you choose would you rather be rich and unhappy or poor and happy? The narrative kind of presents that rich people have no time for family and so the ultra-wealthy are unhappy because they’ve ruined their relationships with friends and family.

I disagree with this idea because I think that you can be both happy and rich, and still have healthy relationships with people around you.

But it feels the Getty family story is the prime example of being rich at the expense of ruined family relationships. The Getty family story is basically a manual on what no to do if you want your family to love you.

Part 1: Mark Getty and the rise of Getty Images

Take note that there are a lot of “John Paul Gettys” in this story but for Getty Images, our focus is on Mark Getty, the co-founder. Just to make it less confusing for you, basically, without listing the other siblings, the “family tree” of Mark Getty looks like this:

J. Paul Getty > John Paul Jr. > George Getty > Mark Getty

If you’re gonna read Part 2, where I cover the messed up lives and the curse of the Gettys, you’ll realize that Mark Getty is probably the one and only Getty that you might as well consider as the good one of the bunch. Not the best, but knowing the low bar that the other Getty’s have set, Mark Getty is pretty much above and beyond.

In 1995, Mark Getty partnered up with Jonathan Klein to start Getty Images. The pair weren’t really on the lookout for a foot in the stock photo business. They simply saw the potential of this growing space, as more and more people embraced the internet.

Mark Getty was working as an investment banker when he and Jonathan Klein stumbled upon the idea of a photo agency. In 1994, Mark Getty asked his father as well as several other family members to back his new venture.

The partners knew that they needed a significant amount of capital in order for this idea to succeed, and so when the Getty family backed their new venture, they pretty much went in with a bang by acquiring several stock photo companies right off the bat.

If you’re unfamiliar with the stock photo business, what these companies do is basically stockpile images by either buying them from photographers or taking these photos themselves. Licenses for these photos are then sold to individuals or companies that needed these photos for their websites, or other marketing collateral.

In the stock photo game, the company with the bigger photo library wins, and so over the years, Getty Images has acquired over 100 other photo companies and consolidating their libraries under one brand.

They acquired iStockphoto in 2006 and Corbis. Corbis is a stock photo company owned by Bill Gates. This was definitely a “Today I learned” moment when I stumbled upon this info. I thought Bill Gates was working on Microsoft and nothing else.

Getty Images became an extremely profitable venture, and it got acquired by a private equity firm Hellman & Friedman in 2008. Then the Carlyle group acquired it from them.

But in 2018, the Getty family acquired it back from the Carlyle Group. Getty Images was reportedly worth around $3 billion dollars when it was acquired back by the Gettys. It has an archive of over 350 million images, it makes over a billion dollars a year in revenues.

Getty Images isn’t the redemption arch of the Getty family though. Because despite it being a good business, Getty is notorious for licensing photos that are actually free. There were also numerous accounts of photographers who discover that their photos are being sold on Getty Images even though they didn’t put them there in the first place. So Getty Images basically earns at zero cost by stealing these photos.

Oh man to be a Getty. You’ll know exactly what I’m talking about when you read Part 2.

Part 2: How John Paul Getty Became the Richest Man in the World

It all starts with this guy, John Paul Getty. At one point, this guy was the richest man in the world due to his ventures in the oil industry.

J. Paul Getty was a notorious penny pincher

Despite his wealth, he was notorious for being a penny pincher. Extreme is an understatement. His frugality was so extreme, that when his grandson was kidnapped, he was unwilling to pay the ransom, not because of all the ‘we don’t negotiate with terrorists’ idea. Nope.

He said: “I have 14 other grandchildren. If I pay one penny, I’ll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren.”

Since the kidnappers felt that he wasn’t taking this seriously, they cut off his grandson’s ear and sent it to him, and he eventually agreed to pay the $2.9 million dollar ransom, which is way below what the kidnappers were asking for.

He was only willing to pay 2.9 million because that was the biggest amount that was tax-deductible. And to think that at this point, this guy was worth $4.2 billion dollars.

J. Paul Getty’s Childhood

His father was George Getty, and his mom was Sarah Getty. The couple had a child, that passed away, and following that, in 1892, John Paul Getty or J. Paul Getty as he’s more commonly known, was born.

George Getty was a lawyer by profession but it's not until he entered the oil industry where the big money really comes in.

George Getty entered the oil industry by buying land that had the potential to become fields abundant with oil. Luckily, one of these plots of land turned out to be just hat.

Seeing the potential, so he decided to double down and went on to acquire some more land. He planned on handing this down to his son in the future. His son was no other than John Paul Getty, who was only around 10 years old at this point.

And just like that, the 10-year-old John Paul Getty has an oil field to his name. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a rags to riches story. This is more of “the rich get richer” type of story.

Being rich is different from “I own an oilfield” rich, which is just on another level of rich.

Becoming a millionaire at 23 years old

George Getty acquires eleven hundred hectares of land for his son J. Paul. After a couple of years, these oilfields were pumping out 100,000 barrels of crude oil every single month.

10 years later, when J. Paul was around 21, his father loaned him some money. J. Paul now had $10,000 to invest in more oil fields.

This was in 1914, and $10,000 is the equivalent of roughly $250,000 dollars today. That’s around 12.5 million Philippine Pesos or 18 million Rupees. A pretty sizeable amount if you ask me. I mean, not many people can just ask their parents for a loan that big.

With 10,000 on hand, he went on to buy this massive piece of land. Luck strikes again for the Gettys, and this time, he hits the jackpot of jackpots. The land was a bountiful oilfield. A year after acquiring this property, at 22–23 years old, he became a millionaire which is around 17 million dollars today.

J. Paul Getty launches Getty Oil

He was no more confident than ever that he’s gonna make it big in life, he just has to buy more land that has the potential to become oilfields, rinse and repeat.

J. Paul decides to set up Getty Oil, a merger of his oil company and his fathers, with J. Paul owning 80%.

While others were struggling during the great depression, J. Paul Getty and Getty Oil were killing it. The Gettys acquired a couple of oil companies at a discount.

So we’re already seeing signs of how fucked up their family dynamic was. We get a glimpse here of how their family dynamic goes

(1949) J. Paul Getty invests with the Saudis

J. Paul Getty was raking an incredible amount of money but he was just getting started. In 1949, J. Paul Getty made an ambitious move in the middle east. Specifically in Saudi Arabia.

Despite being smaller than rival oil companies, Getty was able to win a 60-year concession in Saudi Arabia’s Neutral Zone. This had an area of over 2,200 square miles which is a massive piece of land. This is around 570,000 hectares.

You’re probably wondering how the hell was Getty able to edge our competitors and even the Saudis and Kuwaitis. Well, he paid a premium for it. It surely was a risky expensive bet that J. Paul Getty was willing to make. He agreed to pay King Abdul Aziz $9.5 million dollars upfront, and $1 million a year royalty, and 55 cents per barrel of oil. In comparison, this was 2.5 times what other major oil companies were paying in the Middle East.

5 years after this big bet, Getty struck oil in 1953, reaping 16 million barrels of oil a year. And just like that, his net worth skyrocketed. 4 years later, he became the richest man in the world. Over the course of his life, he’d own over 200 companies, most of whom are connected to the oil business.

Getty had everything in control. Well, except the things that money couldn’t buy.

His success in business could simply not translate when it came to his relationships because J. Paul Getty was simply a complete asshole.

Get married, then get divorced. Rinse and repeat.

J. Paul Getty was earning a crapload and probably couldn’t help himself from living the “Playboy lifestyle.” When J. Paul was in his mid-thirties, he has already married 3 times, had 2 divorces, and 2 children. J. Paul married a total of five times, all failed of course.

In fact, his failed marriages were one of the reasons why when his dad George Getty passed away in 1930, he made sure that J. Paul would inherit only $500,000 of his $10 million dollar fortune. George Getty made sure that his wife would get two-thirds of George Getty Inc, with J. Paul getting only one.

When he was 25 years old, a woman filed suit claiming that he was the father of her child. J. Paul Getty’s legal team tried to undermine her credibility but they eventually agreed to a $10,000 settlement. Remember that he’s 25 at this point which seems like a pretty young age to be going through that.

Also, Getty had a thing for very young women. His third wife, Adolphine, was 17 years old when they met, and he was 36 years old at that point. Her parents were urging her not to marry J. Paul, but she pushed through anyway. Well, her parents were right because Getty eventually lost interest after the birth of their son, and they divorced shortly after.

His fourth wife, Ann Rork, met him when she was only 14 but they became romantically involved when she was 21. They divorced 6 years after they married.

Ann Rork shared how she was abused by Getty. And in one incident, when they were in Italy, J. Paul was trying to force her to climb Mount Vesuvius so that they can enjoy the view. She didn’t want to go because she was pregnant but J. Paul was trying to force her to.

As for his fifth wife, Louise, J. Paul Getty reportedly scolded her because she was spending too much money. In a normal world, this would scolding would some fair, but the reason why his wife was spending money was not for expensive Gucci bags, but for the medical treatment of their six-year-old son Timmy, who apparently needed treatment after being blind due to a brain tumor. Timmy died at the young age of 12. Louise and Timmy were in England Timmy was receiving treatment, J. Paul was in the US. And J. Paul did not even bother to attend the funeral.

J. Paul Getty’s extreme frugality

J. Paul Getty takes frugality to a whole new level.

He had payphones installed in his own home because when guests were around, he noticed that they were using his phone. In true J. Paul Getty fashion, he had payphones installed — coin-operated payphones.

There’s also this story of how his wife, rather one of his wives, wanted to take up acting lessons. J. Paul being J. Paul, he didn’t want to pay for this but eventually did anyway. He gave her one condition: that he gets paid 10% of his wife’s future earnings.

J. Paul was also known to have hand-washed his laundry because he didn’t want to pay for laundry services.

There’s also this one time when J. Paul Getty went out with a group of friends to a dog show. So the group arrived early. But J. Paul insisted walk around the block for around 10 minutes long because apparently, the tickets to this dog show were half-priced at 5pm. Take note that these tickets only cost around 5 shillings per head, and he was already a billionaire yet he felt that it was worth all the hassle.

The kidnapping of John Paul Getty III

This happened in 1973 in Rome, Italy. John Paul Getty III, J. Paul’s 16-year-old grandson went missing.

John Paul III went missing, and on the same day, the Gettys received a note which read: “Dear Mother: I have fallen into the hands of kidnappers. Don’t let me be killed!”

A couple of days later, they received a demand from the kidnappers. They were asking for 12.6 million pounds.

John Paul Jr. did what any of us would do and asked his billionaire father for the money, but J. Paul responded with the infamous “well if we give in to their request, my 13 other grandchildren could become kidnap targets too”. Now keep in mind that around this time, there was a global oil crisis which basically triggered higher prices. So J. Paul was pretty much swimming in cash.

J. Paul didn’t really treat this whole mess seriously. While his grandson was there going through hell with the kidnappers, J. Paul went as far as to theorize that this may all be a scheme by his grandson to extract money from him.

In response, the kidnappers cut off John Paul III’s ear, and a lock of his hair, and sent it to the office of a newspaper company. The kidnappers threatened that they would mutilate John Paul III if they didn’t pay the $3.2 million dollar ransom.

Any other human being would panic and do everything they can to pay this ransom just to end the suffering of their family member. J. Paul was no ordinary human being. Being the frugal assh*le that he is, instead of paying the $3 million, he only agreed to pay $2.2 million. This was not due to the pressure of his grandson getting killed, he only paid because his accountants told him that this is the maximum amount that was tax-deductible. Since the kidnappers demanded $3 million, he paid this via a loan to his grandson at 4% interest.

Yup. In the midst of this kidnapping. J. Paul actually thought of treating this kidnapping ransom as a loan.

Once this was paid, the young John Paul III was released. The kid was relieved and thankful that he made it out. He wanted to call his grandfather to thank him for paying the ransom, but J. Paul refused to talk to him.

Now a young kid doesn’t go through all that without his mental health and just overall mindset taking a hit. All throughout John Paul III’s short life, he dived into drugs and alcohol abuse. When he was 25 years old, he took a mix of drugs that caused him to be handicapped and partially blind up until his death in 2011 at age 54.

And he wasn’t the only Getty whose life became so messed up.

The death of Talitha Pol and George Getty

J. Paul’s son, John Paul Getty Jr, was hired by his father to run the European arm of the oil business, but eventually, he succumbed to drug addiction.

He was known to have hung out with the Rolling Stones, and that he managed to consume an entire bottle of rum and a gram of heroin in a single day.

John Paul Jr’s wife, the talented actress Talitha Pol. She pretty much in the same lifestyle that John Paul Jr was in, and well, she was found dead of a heroin overdose. It gets worse.

This one is about John Paul Jr’s son, George. He was supposed to be the heir to the Getty empire after John Paul Jr. It’s been reported that his father regularly sent memos that were critical of his work, telling him that his father was constantly watching and without admiration.

It always seems necessary in the Getty family to make sure that there is no love and affection existing at any given moment. All of this took a toll on George and he descended into depression. One day, right after arriving from work. George grabbed his shotgun and fired it in the air. This alerted his wife. He then locked the room, grabbed a BBQ knife, and stabbed himself in the chest. He already ingested a lethal dose of pills before he did all this. He was immediately rushed to the hospital but he died the following day.

When George died, his father John Paul Jr. threw himself back into drugs, but luckily, he turned his life around in his last few years when he turned to philanthropy, and eventually he was even knighted.

The final days of J. Paul Getty

I’m gonna end this episode by going back to the last days of J. Paul Getty. The one who started it all.

Even in his late 80s, J. Paul was continued with his sexual affairs with countless women. He was said to be using some experimental drug to make all of his sick adventures possible.

He was living in Sutton Place, along with several mistresses, all young women who were desperately hoping to get a piece of his estate, I’m guessing.

Just like what we see in the movies, J. Paul lived a very lonely life despite being wealthy for most of his time here. J. Paul was quoted as saying “I hate and regret the failure of my marriages. I would gladly give all my millions for just one lasting one marital success.”

J. Paul died of heart failure at the age of 83 in 1976.

Although I’d argue that his heart probably failed way back. Failed to give any ounce of love and affection back to anything this shithead came across with.

There are two lessons here:

  1. Don’t be like J. Paul Getty
  2. You can be both wealthy and a good person.

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