The Digital Journalist

Archives, Photographers,
Researchers and The Cave

Editorial by Dirck Halstead

Early last month, the New York Times featured a front-page story that Corbis, the privately owned picture agency created by Bill Gates, was preparing to move the entire Bettmann Archive to a cave in western Pennsylvania. The millions of photographs include the original collection created by Otto Bettmann in Germany, during the years between World War I and World War II, to, finally, the acquisition of United Press International's archives.

The UPI files, alone, comprise millions of photographs taken by photographers working for the United Press, the International News Service, and Acme Newspictures. The collection is one of the most extensive in the world.

In the 1960s, I was a UPI photographer working out of the New York bureau. From time to time, I would work the night shift (6pm - 2am). On those nights that I was not covering sports events or parties, I would spend my time in the "file room," going through endless numbers of brown hard cases, each containing folders with hundreds of photographs, covering every conceivable subject, event, or personality. Pulling out 8x10 black and white glossy prints, I noted the caption on the back of each. It gave the transmission number, date, and ended with the name of the photographer who took the photo.

Not a night went by that I wasn't surprised. I would start to go through a folder on a particular subject, seeing the photographs that I already knew about, then suddenly discover another shot, by the same photographer taken at the same event, that was better than the one I knew.

What I have just described is the same process of revelation and discovery that countless photo researchers, working for magazines, books, films, and television have experienced time after time, as they culled through those boxes that have sat in the Bettmann office, on West 20th Street in New York, all these years. It is what these researchers are paid to do, and finding those pictures that no one remembers is one of things that makes their job worthwhile.

Unfortunately, maintaining these collections takes people. In turn, people need to be paid. The rent on the space keeps going up; the prints become increasingly dog-eared; the color fades; the negatives get scratched, and so on. It is costing far more to maintain the archives than can ever be recovered by sales.

This is the problem Bill Gates faces. And it is his problem. He owns them all - every slide, print, plate, and negative. He paid for them. Not only does he own Bettmann, which had acquired the bankrupt UPI collection, but also Sygma, Sipa and many stock agencies, as well.

In the first years after Gates created Corbis, I visited their offices in Redmond, Washington. Roger Ressmeyer, who at the time was the editorial director, took me into a room where half a dozen people were scanning photographs. This is right after Corbis had acquired the collections of David and Peter Turnley. At the time it was the highest profile deal of its kind. What I saw was a room filled with boxes, stuffed with transparencies, negatives and contacts. I was fascinated. I asked Roger how many pictures per day could be scanned. He told me about 200. I did a quick mental calculation: 6 rolls of film, (the average shot by a photographer on a story in a day) x 36 frames = 216 scans. They were going to scan the entire body of work by these two photographers, who had been working for years. It was going to be an insurmountable challenge. And that was just the Turnleys. Since then, Corbis has expanded this base a thousand fold, to be conservative. Even for Gates, the income from Microsoft isn't growing fast enough to properly digitize this information.

Bill Gates is not alone. Getty is facing the same problem, with their acquisition of Liasion agency, Tony Stone Images, and Allsport files. What kept their archives alive was the fact that they were dealing in analog material that had already been filed over years. They also had clients, such as Time and Newsweek who spent lots of money on a regular basis, to say nothing of the photographers, worldwide, who were constantly contributing new material supporting the rent and staff needed. But almost all of the client support has gone away. As a recent report on the Editorial Photo List described, for people like AOL's Time Magazine, "If they can get a picture of Julia Roberts smiling, it doesn't matter if it is an old picture, a new picture, a wire service picture, or a stock picture."

So, what we are seeing is a vicious cycle being perpetuated. The magazines are no longer interested in supporting the costs of new photographic acquisition. The agencies can no longer afford to maintain the collections. The photographers can no longer maintain a decent sales volume. And the researchers no longer have the archives to comb. The net result of all this is the banishment of an extraordinary record of history to a cave in Pennsylvania!

We can't really blame Bill Gates. He is, at least, trying to salvage the pictures for some future time. So, who can we blame? Well, we can start with the corporate world in general, in which shareholder value becomes the determination of worth. We can go on to changes in technology, in which everything moves faster, and therefore less attention to individual elements takes place. Somewhere, however, our role must be considered. How little time have we photographers spent worrying about what ultimately becomes of our work?

Several years ago, I remember David Rubinger, a truly gifted photographer, responsible for one of the greatest archives on the creation and life of the state of Israel, telling of his outrage upon seeing a young photographer's car. Rolls of negatives had been thrown in with his cameras, just banging around in his trunk. David yelled at the hapless photographer, "Do you realize that those photographs are our history?"

In Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," Cassius reprimands Brutus: "The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves."

We all - from photographer, to publisher, to agency, to corporation, to mogul - bear the responsibility of preserving our photographic legacy. It is a sacred trust.

Dirck Halstead