The Digital Journalist

The Vanishing Photographer

Editorial by Dirck Halstead

I recently attended the opening of the Newseum's new show on the press  coverage of the national political campaigns. Prominently displayed were a number of large photographs of famous moments in past campaigns. The black and white prints bore the credit "Photograph by Corbis".

It seemed peculiar to me that photographs mounted for a museum display, particularly one that was designed to tell the story of how the press covers events, would not credit the photographer who created the picture.

This prompted me to go into the Corbis web site do a random sample of how the agency was crediting the photographs they were selling to a worldwide audience (at $3.00 a pop). I only had to go to the first set of photos that I wanted to search to come across some dismaying news. I pulled up the category of the Vietnam War. I knew that Corbis had obtained the entire Bettman/UPI library. Having served as the UPI picture bureau chief in Saigon in the mid-sixties, I was personally very familiar with many of the photographs. They encompassed a period when some of the most famous prize-winning pictures were produced by now-legendary photographers.

The first thing I discovered was that a preponderance of the Vietnam War photographs on file were the color frames by Tim Page, who had worked for UPI for a year, before going on to freelancing, mostly for Time-Life. His work was the only credited set of photographs, but it hardly touches on the brilliance of the UPI collection. When I clicked on one of the most famous photographs of the war, Kyoichi Sawada's picture of a family fleeing a fire fight, by swimming across the river, there was only a brief caption, with no photo credit. I have a particular affection for this photograph, that went on to win the World Press Award, and The Pulitzer Prize for Sawada. It seemed incredible to me that a Pulitzer prize winning photo would not mention the award or the photographer that made it. I then started to look for some of my photos from the UPI days...there were some there, including a few that won international prizes, but no mention of Dirck.

In fact, in the huge Corbis collection, which grows every day, there were very few mentions of photographers at all. Yes, we have the portfolios from David and Peter Turnley, giving them credit for all their photographs up to the time they signed a huge contract with Corbis. Roger Ressmeyer's collection (he was the first photo director hired by Corbis) is attributed to him, as is the collection of Ansel Adams. But for the vast majority of the images, which represent one of the largest collections in the world, the photographers' name had simply vanished.

It made me wonder. If Corbis had obtained Matthew Brady's collection, would he have become an anonymous provider of Civil War photographs?

When Bettman acquired the UPI archives, they came with  a very valuable book. It was the daily logs, meticulously maintained by then picture editor Larry DeSantis, of every photo that went into the library. I used this resource many times, by simply going back through Larry's handwritten entries which showed what photographer had supplied the picture, the file number, the story, and special notes, such as "print for contest." Whenever possible, the Bettman people tried to give the full caption information with a print, making sure to include the photographer's credit. Looking at these same pictures and captions in the Corbis online base, not only had the credit line disappeared, but there were major omissions and typos in the captions themselves.

Exploring the Corbis site further, this practice continued into its gallery areas, where they offer framed photographs. Major exhibits, such as "Harlem in the Jazz Age", a series of black and white prints, offer no clue as to who the photographer was. Another prints marketing site of some 70 framed photographs, offer few names of who the artist were. You note that I used the word "artists". My belief is that when a collection of works are presented as collectibles, the presumption is that the photographers who produced them are indeed artists.  Otherwise, why would anybody want to buy them?  Once the concept of stripping photographs of their creator has begun, the inherent value in great photographs will begin to crumble.

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