How I started Hollywood's first digital photo agency: Paul Harris, Founder of Online USA

  • - The FIVE most brilliant quotes from our podcast episode - *

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Paul recounts his amazing adventures - from war photography to portraits in Hollywood

Imagine being able to predict the future - to know your industry was about to change forever.

But imagine then the dismay when your clients refuse to believe you, and reject all your attempts to help them adapt.

That's where photojournalist and entrepreneur Paul Harris found himself in the early 1990s.

Paul had a fantastic backstory as a war photojournalist who became one of Hollywood's most prolific celebrity portrait photographers.

He moved from covering conflicts in Africa to photographing the great and the good in their palatial homes in Beverly Hills.

From Muhammad Ali to Richard Nixon, Jamie Lee Curtis to the Williams sisters, Paul Harris shot them all.

But Paul's masterstroke was seeing the revolution in digital photography before almost anyone else.

And last year Paul recounted his remarkable story to me as we recorded an episode of THE BIG SWING PODCAST.

You can listen to the show here on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

And please subscribe to our podcast to hear secret stories direct from the pioneers of content.

Here are five of the most fascinating quotes from my conversation with Paul Harris:

  1. Paul started to make a name for himself as a news photographer after covering the war in Rhodesia in the 1970s.  But he stayed open-minded enough to pivot when an interesting opportunity presented itself:
I thought I had found my career path being following breaking news or troubles in different countries. ... I found that the French Foreign Legion were pulling out of Djibouti in about a month, and it was going to be a big deal... Anyway, along the way came Terry Fincher... and he just said to me, Bugger this serious stuff, mate, you ought to go to Hollywood.

2. Paul struggled with the culture clash between his upbringing in the UK and the commercially focused world of Los Angeles:

I loved California, I loved everything about it. You could actually get things done. You could achieve things. But ... if you're in Hollywood, everyone is on everyone else to further their own career. And if they can suck something out of you for their benefit, they will do it. And and you in the end feel not worthless, but just abused. You feel that no one you're meeting actually has a desire to be your friend. They just like what you do and what you could possibly do for them.

3. Paul established himself as a brilliant photographer working mainly on assignments for English newspapers, and realised that digital photo transmission was going to transform the photo business - so he grabbed the opportunity to disrupt the industry:

And about 92, I did indeed spend $30,000 on a set of kit...with high end scanners and film, you could get astonishing pictures. I went to see the various picture editors and it just didn't work. No publication wanted to change... And everywhere I went, down in the bowels of the paper was a young hot tech dude and he knew where the world was going, but his bosses did not.

4. And once he met rock photographer Brad Elterman, Paul knew he had found a brilliant partner to set up Online USA with. Paul was a brilliant tech mind, and Brad had complementary skills:

I like having partners. Brad was an instant answer. Brad already had the connections, already was known very well by People magazine and Enquirer... And he knew the picture editors, and he knew how to sell. He knew the pricing. He also had several photographer friends who were happy to put their pictures through this new agency. So it seemed a perfect fit. And and it was.

5. The business became successful as the photo industry slowly pivoted to digital, and after a few years, Paul sold Online USA to Getty Images. But he soon realised that corporate life wasn't for him:

I became Vice President of of West Coast content for Getty Images. And I became about the 300th most important person in a company of 5000. And for one year I hated it... And I got a secret whisper from someone that I was about to be escorted from the company which delighted me. It meant they were terminating my contract early

I've long admired Paul's positivity, adventurous spirit and good humour.  But in our conversation, I also realised what a canny and clever strategist Paul was. Always interested in how the industry is changing, Paul has a deep thirst for innovation.

If you'd like to hear our half-hour episode, please check it out on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

And you can check out some of Paul's amazing photography here

Enjoy the listen!

Sam Barcroft

Sam Barcroft

Creative entrepreneur and strategist with over 30 years experience of building media businesses