Neville Chamberlain at Heston Aerodrome, 30th September 1938, by Fred Ramage, Keystone Picture Agency

Alan Sparrow introduces this month’s image

A hundred years ago the Keystone Picture Agency opened its offices in London with Bertram Garai, creator of the world-beating picture agency as its head of the operations. He never took a photograph himself in his entire career. 

Born in Hungary in 1892 one of 13 children, Garai started working life in banking, but when he realised it was not for him he travelled Europe looking for a career, and in April 1912 happened to be visiting a news agency in Paris when news broke of the sinking of the Titanic. "I watched the whole operation swing into action” he recalled. “It was most impressive and gave me a glimpse of the speed and efficiency and enthusiasm such work entailed”.

As the First World War loomed he moved to London working as a publicity agent for actors, but soon made a bold move to leave for the USA. There he worked for a picture agency called Press Illustrated Service as a caption writer on what we now dismissively call “hand-out pictures” obtained from agencies in Europe. Acquiring the pictures, he re-captioned them and sold them on to the American newspapers. He was given considerable latitude and was soon commissioning photographers to create images, and building contacts throughout Europe to obtain and syndicate pictures through America.

He was a great fan of the “stunted” or set up picture, for one of the first of which he had an American soldier’s uniform made for his four-year-old son, Oliver, and as the US entered the War he circulated the picture as the USA’s youngest recruit. On another occasion he got a Ziegfeld Girls dancer to pose in a Grecian style costume in Central Park which was published widely. The dancer was fined for breaking park by-laws but more than compensated by the boost to her career.

Press Illustrated merged with the Keystone View Company, an agency from Pennsylvania (known as the Keystone State) and with the creativity that Garai brought to the agency it grew. By the 1920s it had become one of the best known news picture and feature agencies in the world with agents and offices around Europe, mostly run by one or another of Garai’s siblings, and in the spring of 1920 he opened the Keystone offices in London.

During the 1920’s Garai was accompanied by Chris Ware, one of Keystone’s early appointed staff photographers, as he spent months travelling around Europe calling, often unannounced, on the many European monarchs who still occupied thrones, and asking them to have their pictures taken. Surprisingly, many of them agreed.

Garai’s desire to be first led to many exclusives. While visiting Berlin he obtained a hand-out photo of a young Adolf Hitler and that became “the” picture of Hitler that was used for many years, earning considerable income for Keystone. Another exclusive was the winner of the Derby in 1933 taken by another of Keystone’s photographers, Fred Ramage, who also took this famous picture of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain on return from his meeting with Adolf Hitler in Munich.

Ramage joined Keystone in 1921 and was considered by Garai to be one of his stars. The Derby Day picture was on the front page of the Evening Standard within 30 minutes of the race ending. It was only made possible with a motorcyclist messenger travelling at over 100mph (there was no 30mph limit in 1933) and with a relay of messengers on foot at the Derby and messengers waiting outside the office for the biker’s arrival.

When the Hindenburg crashed Manchester, New Jersey, in May 1937 Keystone chartered an aeroplane and had original pictures flown to London. The plane returned the following day with pictures of the coronation of King George Vl for the American newspapers – a brave and revolutionary concept done more for kudos than profit.

On January 1, 1941, the offices of the Keystone Picture Agency received a direct hit during an air raid and were completely destroyed along with the photo archive built over thirty years, much of it irreplaceable. But, mercifully, prints of some of the work was stored around Keystone’s other offices and could be copied, though the priceless negatives were lost forever.

Keystone and was acquired by Photosource in 1987 which in turn was bought by Getty Images in 1996 when Getty bought the Hulton Library.

Bert Garai finished work in 1964 when he was knocked down, ironically by a newspaper van while crossing Fleet Street. He survived and was succeeded by his son Bertram, who ran the office for many more years. Chris Ware one of Keystones first photographers, employed in 1924 was still working for Keystone in the 1970s. Ramage retired in the 60s after joining Keystone in 1921 and continued working in Fleet Street for over forty years.


More work from the Keystone years can be seen at Fleet Streets Finest

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