RESPONSE TO "THE VANISHING PHOTOGRAPHER"
EDITORIAL FROM CORBIS
By Peter Howe
Being in this, or indeed any other industry as long as I have is that things always seemed better at the beginning than they do now. The skies were always blue, Christmas was always white, the pictures were always sharp, and art directors were always kind people who treated your work with respect.
Unfortunately those rosy memories don’t always match up to harsh reality. After having heard for many years the wonderful Carl Mydans browbeat students at the Eddie Adams workshop about the value of captions, I was in the position to publish Carl’s previously unpublished pictures of Welsh coal miners. Howard Chapnick and I had done the selections and were about to go to layout. We called Carl for the captions. Guess what? No captions.
The reason I bring all this up is that I suspect that some of this retro view of reality affected Dirck when he wrote his last editorial. Dirck and I have known each other for many years, and I have a great affection for him, and especially what he has done with the Digital Journalist. You can imagine my distress when I read about the crimes against photography committed by Corbis, my present employer, in the area of not giving due credit to photographers for their work. I was so uncomfortable that I consulted with two of our employees. One is a former Bettmann staff member with extensive knowledge of that and the associated collections (including ACME, International News Photos and Pacific & Atlantic), and the other is a researcher who actually worked with Larry De Santis at UPI from the 1960's on.
I don’t know if Dirck was talking about another set of logbooks, but the ones that they showed me, and the only set that we got when Bettmann purchased the UPI collection, certainly don’t match up to the description of the “meticulously maintained” volumes that Dirck describes.
I leafed through some entries from the years 1968 and 1972, many of which were in handwriting that our researcher assured me was De Santis’. Here are some typical entries dated 12/6/72:
1760641 NXP (S. Carolina ñ Villanova)
or these from 6/30/68:
1598238 NXP Joe Di Maggio sequence
My two sources told me that when there was information as to the identity of the photographer, it was included with the caption and placed inside the negative sleeve, not entered in the daily log. The earlier the photo, the less likely it is that there will be a photographer’s credit. By the mid-sixties UPI was fairly consistently capturing credits, but there are still large gaps. One especially egregious example was that of the famous Frank Johnston Vietnam photograph that was recently identified. It was uncredited in the original caption. This spotty crediting was further complicated by the fact that by the time the UPI collection came to Bettmann it was not in the best state of organization or preservation.
In fact identifying photographers as the authors of their work was a relatively recent development in the 20th century, especially in the wire services. We find that with much of the Bettmann and UPI collections there simply is no record of authorship. This is the reason that many of the prints that we sell via the Internet to which Dirck refers are not identified as the work of a particular photographer. It’s not that a faceless and heartless corporation is destroying the birthright of its much-abused contributors. The reason is that many of these photographs had slipped into anonymity before they came to us.
There is a more worrying aspect to Dirck’s editorial than all of the above. It is that it appears symptomatic of a feeling in at least a part of the industry that there are plots afoot and forces of darkness gathering for destructive purposes. Conspiracy theorists abound in the photographic community, and as a result the good old American (and before that British!) practice of giving the benefit of the doubt has gone the way of the silver dollar. There’s still some around but it’s an increasingly rare commodity. The rights of the photographer are incredibly important at Corbis. Without our providers we’re left with a bunch of extremely expensive software and nothing to do with it. Corbis employees aggressively try to protect those rights because we have this common interest with photographers, and also because we like them. There are Corbis staff members whose only job is to protect photographers’ rights, and who perform this task with dogged tenacity. In fact to some extent everyone who works for Corbis is protecting photographers’ rights. We have instituted a bounty program whereby any employee who brings a rights infringement to our attention can earn a bonus when the violation is successfully resolved.
Do we do a perfect job? Unfortunately not always as well as we would like. We have responsibility for 70 million images. Despite our best efforts and good intentions mistakes may be made.
Are we well disposed and well intentioned towards our photographers? You bet your sweet Domke Bag we are. I’m not asking you to give us carte blanche to do what we want. It’s good and healthy that Dirck should ask the questions that he does. But if we make mistakes, tell us. We’ll do our best to correct them. You have my e-mail address on that.
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