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For the record: Ajax News & Features Service

In this new series on PAN we are giving photo agency owners a chance to record the history of their photo agency – something I wish had happened more often in the 1930’s – 1960’s ! The aim to record how particular agencies worked, the staff, the darkroom, getting images on the wires and to publish rarely seen photos of the day to day working life in photo agencies and libraries.
First up is Jonathan Eastland (who sent me this report too long ago …apologies  – got there in the end Jonathan!) and his photo agency Ajax News & Features Service currently based in Worthing, UK.


Ajax News & Feature Service was established in the naval city of Portsmouth in the early 1970s to service publishers with words and photographs of events in the maritime world. It was the first such specialist agency of its kind, its picture library built on the existing work of photojournalist Jonathan Eastland who took up the camera professionally in 1966 after a short career in the British Merchant Navy; at its operating peak in the mid-1980s, the agency serviced more than 70 magazine and newspaper publishers in over 20 countries.

As the business expanded its office and darkroom in Southsea, it took on various freelance partners and a young trainee; Simon Barnett served a three year apprenticeship before emigrating to the USA where he eventually became Director of Photography at CNN.

Jonathan supplied us with a few tear sheets of published work

From its earliest days, Ajax captured the burgeoning popularity of solo-sailers; Robin Knox-Johnston, Alec Rose, Chay Blyth and their yachting exploits. International yacht and powerboat racing, The America’s Cup, Admiral’s Cup, Cowes-Torquay-Cowes, the Whitbread Round the World Races and many other offshore events became annual staples on the Ajax calendar. At the same time, it endeavoured to maintain coverage of the commercial and defence shipping industry.

A few of its notable successes included coverage of the 1979 Fastnet storm tragedy, the Cunard liner QE2 dry-docked after the Falkland Islands conflict, the wreck of the radioactive freighter Mont St.Louis.

By the early 1980s, Ajax had outgrown its base in Southsea and moved to Southampton where waterside offices on the Itchen, and later Hamble River, enabled rapid access for its photo-launches to the Solent and beyond. Getting film back to the darkrooms quickly in those halcyon days was key to continued success.

New technology was changing things fast though. Ajax installed its first word-processor in the late 1970s. By the mid 80s, desk-top computers and negative scanners were all the rage. The print industry too had benefitted; magazines carried a lot more colour pages and the operating field of specialist ‘sailing’ photographers had grown from a meagre handful in the 1960s to dozens operating around the world. Competition to get a ‘smudge’ on a page was fierce.

After covering one of the longest sporting events ever between ’86 and 7, Jonathan Eastland returned home from the America’s Cup venue in Western Australia with a new plan. The agency’s regular news coverage was paired down, the focus moving to more feature based material and the long-overlooked segment of luxury yachting.  Simultaneously, the advent of computers capable of handling hi-resolution scans kick-started a major re-organisation of the Ajax image archives.

One if its earliest assets included a collection of vintage glass plates. In the decades since it was first established, other collections were added and the archive now contains thousands of images of maritime and social life dating back to 1858. Acquisitions include the Vosper Thornycroft Shipbuilding archive covering more than a century of small and large ship construction at sites on the Thames and at Southampton, Reg Calvert’s work made in the Caribbean Islands in the 1950s and 60s, the Viv Townley aviation archive from the 1960s and 70s and Frenchman Jean Corre’s Kodachrome work from Indo-China in the 1950s.

Ajax now concentrates on digitalising its analogue archive of over 200,000 images. Following limited success with its own web based gallery, it began using Alamy’s excellent platform a few years back it gives contributors and small agencies far wider access to today’s market than they could ever hope to achieve working alone.

The industry picture (no pun intended!) has changed dramatically from when I first started in this game over 50 years back. Some might argue it’s no place for today’s beginners, but I don’t believe that. One just needs a better understanding of how the industry works and what the demands are; to paraphrase Warren Buffet, while the screen and print continue to co-exist, they’ll still be growing wheat in Nebraska for a long time to come.



• To have your agency considered for the recored give me a call/email

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