An apparent administrative slip-up has unleashed an uprising at celebrity photo agency Retna, with photographers complaining that the agency is failing to report sales, pay royalties, or respond to calls and e-mails from frustrated contributors.
Photographers started comparing notes after an agency employee recently sent notification about the agency's change of address in New York City. Instead of copying photographers in the blind carbon copy (BCC) field of the e-mail, the agency employee distributed the names and e-mail addresses of dozens of photographers so all could see who had received the e-mail.
According to one person on the list of recipients, more than 250 past and present Retna contributors received the e-mail. Hitting the "reply-all" button to respond to everyone on the list, the photographers started exchanging complaints, and discovered they were all experiencing the same frustrations with the agency.
"I started getting all these e-mails saying 'What's the deal?' and people are talking about filing a lawsuit," says Austin, Texas photographer J. Dennis Thomas, who signed on to contribute to Retna in 2007--and stopped contributing in 2010 because he had too much trouble collecting royalties. "Getting checks was like pulling teeth," he says. "I still find [published] images that Retna never paid me for."
Like other photographers interviewed by PDN, Thomas is uncertain how much Retna owes him, because tracking uses online and in publications around the world on his own is too difficult and time consuming.
"Everyone's talking, and they're experiencing the same thing. People are mad that they [Retna] are ripping people off," says contributor Rahav Segev of New York. "I spoke to them, said they need to be transparent, pay up and stop making excuses. Nobody has faith that they are going to pay."
Segev says he hasn't received any royalty payments for the last eight months. The agency promised to pay when he called two months ago, and then didn't keep the promise, Segev says.
"They're admitting it. They clearly acknowledge that there were a lot of sales they weren't accounting for or weren't paying for," he continues. But he says "nobody knows what's going on, or who's running the ship. They have lousy communications."
Retna's acknowledgement of problems came last week in the form of a message from CEO Alan Pairmont, in response to the complaints photographers were sharing through e-mail. Pairmont said that "many of their [photographers'] gripes are legitimate," and blamed previous managers for the agency's problems.
"I’ve been trying to revive the spirit of the old Retna for almost a year, and we’ve come a long way towards that goal and any input from contributors can only help further that," Pairmont told photographers in an e-mail distributed on his behalf by a subordinate. "When I first started here, we had missing records for several years worth of sales…. God only knows how past management could sleep at night. The audit we paid for took months and found an unbelievable amount of money owed that we have been paying out."
He went on to say that "over two-thirds has already been paid out, and that has been a heavy load on us in 2011 causing a lot of the delays they [photographers] mention, and until the rest is completely paid we will have the dark legacy of 2006-2010 hanging over us."
It is unclear what the "dark legacy of 2006-2010" was, exactly. Retna's US operations separated from its UK operations in 2006, when agency founder Michael Putland sold the company.
It is unclear whether the US operation changed hands again in 2010. Also unanswered by Pairmont's statement is how much Retna owed photographers, whether the agency is behind in payments for sales since 2010, and when overdue accounts will finally be settled.
Pairmont did not respond immediately to a request via e-mail for an interview, and attempts to leave phone messages were unsuccessful. A notice on Retna's web site said that while the agency is changing its office location, "our phone and e-mail service may be sporadic."
In any event, photographers have had mixed reactions to Pairmont's statement.
New York photographer Billy Thompkins says that for the past two years, the agency has either failed to return his calls or given him "lip service" about money it owes him. "The only time I ever get service is when I show up unexpectedly at the
office and demand information--then I get a check," he says.
But he blames the problems on former executives, and gives Pairmont the benefit of any doubt. "I've been talking to the CEO, and from what I can tell he has good intent to straighten things out. I think he's trying to get rid of the bad apples, and has gotten rid of most of them."
Thomas is more skeptical. "[Pairmont is] a CEO. He sees trouble and of course he's going to say whatever he can....I think he's protecting an asset."
Photographer Rena Durham of Chatsworth, California says she "got a couple of checks" in 2011 for sales from 2010 "as if they're trying to catch up." But her frustration and mistrust remain high. Retna owes her "in the thousands of dollars," but she's lost track of the actual figure because a number of sales she has discovered on her own were not reported by the agency.
Durham says she hasn't paid for any sales for four months. When she receives checks, "it's hardly anything," she says. Last year, Retna sent her a 1099 tax form that indicated sales totaling several thousand dollars more than she actually received.
"I have battled with them for years to get my checks and have received such a range of excuses including my check being lost in the mail," Durham says. She adds that when she has inquired about unreported images, "They act like they don't know what's going on."
But Retna isn't the only small independent picture agency to stir the wrath of contributing photographers. California-based Picture Groups has also been accused in recent months of not reporting sales and withholding money it owes to contributors.
The question is, Why do many photographers continue to contribute--sometimes for years--to picture agencies they suspect of ripping them off? And what incentive does that give to the agencies to clean up their act?
"I still give images to [Retna]. I probably shouldn't. I don't know why I do," Durham says. "I guess I do it in hopes that they'll change."
Thomas says a lot of contributors have other jobs, and shot musicians and celebrities for the fun of it. "The half-way decent ones sign up with someone like Retna, and won't get paid, but won't complain too much about it," he says. "If Retna can get people and not pay them, they're going to do it."
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