[linux-elitists] Corbis goes underground
Karsten M. Self
Sun Apr 22 01:46:25 PDT 2001
on Sat, Apr 21, 2001 at 04:26:19PM -0400, Brooklyn Linux Solutions CEO (email@example.com) wrote:
> > Corbis is a huge media archive owned by Bill Gates. It's content being
> > stolen from the public:
> This is a good reason why we need to have guarantees of fairuse. And one
> of these fairuse guarantees need to be the right to archive materials
> for future references. Perhaps the public can gather enough of the
> collection and archive it for public fair use to make the threat of
> withdrawl of the material inconsequential.
> I hope this is picked up by the DMCA DeCSS trial on NYC. Does anyone
> have primary resources on this story?
I should have done this before. From Yahoo news:
Photo Archive Heads Underground (AP)
Gates plans to deep-freeze photo archive (Seattle Times)
And, from the New York Times, which, incidentally, is about to bury its
two-week archives an their own underground cavern:
April 15, 2001
A Century's Photo History Destined for Life in a Mine
By SARAH BOXER
It will be a surreal burial.
The Bettmann archive, the quirky cache of pictures that Otto
Bettmann sneaked out of Nazi Germany in two steamer trunks in 1935
and then built into an enormous collection of historical importance,
will be sunk 220 feet down in a limestone mine situated 60 miles
northeast of Pittsburgh, where it will be far from the reach of
historians. The archive, which is estimated to have as many as 17
million photographs, is a visual history of the 20th century. Since
1995 it has belonged to Corbis, the private company of Microsoft's
chairman, William H. Gates. The Bettmann archive is moving from New
York City to a strange underworld. Corbis plans to rent 10,000
square feet in a mine that once belonged to U.S. Steel and now holds
a vast underground city run by Iron Mountain/National Underground
Storage. There Corbis will create a modern, subzero, low-humidity
storage area safe from earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, vandals,
nuclear blasts and the ravages of time.
But preservation by deep freeze presents a problem. The new address
is strikingly inaccessible. Historians, researchers and editors
accustomed to browsing through photo files will have to use Corbis's
digital archive, which has only 225,000 images, less than 2 percent
of the whole collection.
Some worry that the collection is being locked away in a tomb;
others believe that Mr. Gates is saving a pictorial legacy that is
in mortal danger. One thing is clear. This is a momentous occasion.
As Henry Wilhelm, a film preservationist in Grinnell, Iowa, put it,
"This is the closing of the era of traditional photography."
The Bettmann archive, now housed at Broadway and 20th Street in
Manhattan, includes not only Bettmann's private collection millions
of images of everything from sunglasses to demolitions to medical
tools but also the United Press International collection, 10 million
news photos from archives that once belonged to Hearst, Scripps, The
Daily News and The Chicago Tribune.
The pictures are moving for their own good, said Bill Hannigan, the
editorial director of Corbis's digital archive. For years no one
thought the photographs were valuable. They were "components of a
business," he said. They were pictures made to be printed in
newspapers and magazines. They were bent, scribbled on, captioned
and recaptioned. Some were stored near radiators and leaky pipes. No
one took care of them, and now many are falling apart. A lot of the
color film has faded and the acetate-based negatives have begun to
break down, bubble and crack.
By 1997 the verdict was clear, Mr. Hannigan said: "Get them out of
here." Film needs to be in cold, dry storage. That is the only thing
that can slow its deterioration, Mr. Wilhelm said. At the moment,
the most vulnerable Bettmann negatives in New York are in two
commercial freezers, awaiting the move to the mine. As Mr. Wilhelm
noted, "Sara Lee cakes are much better taken care of than most
That will change soon. This fall, Corbis will start trucking all of
its photographs, negatives and other graphic materials from New York
to the new site that Mr. Wilhelm is helping to plan in the
Pennsylvania mine. "The objective is to preserve the originals for
thousands of years," he said.
When the move is done, Corbis's New York office will contain nothing
but people and their computers, plugged into a digital archive. No
photographic prints, no negatives, no rotting mess. Analog is having
a burial, and digital is dancing on its grave.
And that is the rub. "What is the point of conserving the
photographs if no one can see them?" asked Gail Buckland, a photo
historian and curator who used the Bettmann to research the
photographs used in the book "The American Century" by Harold Evans.
Photographs are original historical documents, she said. As a
historian "you develop a sixth sense" when you work with them. You
stumble on things you would never find on your computer.
"I know the ephemeral qualities of holding pictures in your hand,"
said Mr. Hannigan, who wrote "New York Noir," a book based on the
crime photos in the Daily News Collection. Going through the Corbis
collection, he said, he found a lot of images no one had seen
before, including photographs taken by Weegee at Sammy's Bowery Bar
and at Coney Island.
Ken Johnston, who has worked for the Bettmann archive since 1985 and
is now the manager of Corbis's historical collection, sounded
wistful about the archive's departure. "I love that stuff," he said.
"Not being able to get my hands on it will be tough. But I will
develop a relationship by remote control."
The remote relationship may already be compromised, though. Only a
fraction of the photographs will be digitized before the move. And
after the move, the digitization will be slow at best. In other
words, the researchers who help newspapers, magazines and publishers
find the images they need will not be working with a full deck of
When Mr. Gates bought the Bettmann and U.P.I. collections in 1995,
digitization was his mission. Mr. Gates, who also owns Sygma (a
documentary photo agency based in Paris that has about 30 million
images) and Saba Press (a news-photo service based in New York that
has about a million photos) and has the rights to license digital
reproductions of works from the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia,
the Philadelphia Museum, the Barnes Collection in Merion, Pa., and
the National Gallery in London, had always planned to make his
worldwide collection, now 65 million photographs strong, fully
So in 1996, Corbis began transferring the Bettmann and U.P.I. images
into digital format at the cost of about $20 per picture. But
suddenly this January, when only about 225,000 photographic images
had been scanned, the scanning stopped. Corbis laid off 79 members
of its worldwide staff of 1,300, including those involved in editing
and digitizing Bettmann and U.P.I. images.
Why? "There was too much of a preservation issue" to finish editing
and digitizing the whole thing, Mr. Hannigan said. If Corbis had
scanned everything it would have taken 25 years to finish. And that
was time the pictures did not have. "It is heartbreaking to look at
these images and see their structure breaking down."
The images scanned first were those deemed most valuable, both
culturally and commercially. Pictures of Kennedys, Rockefellers,
Roosevelts, the Depression, the two world wars and the Vietnam War
have been scanned. As have money- making 20th-century icons:
Einstein sticking out his tongue, Rosa Parks on the bus, Jimi
Hendrix at Woodstock, Orson Welles doing his "War of the Worlds"
broadcast and anything with Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Jackie
Robinson, Babe Ruth or Martin Luther King Jr. in it.
Then the collection was searched for undiscovered treasures. "It's
like shucking oysters," Mr. Hannigan said. One has to go through a
lot of boring pictures of ribbon cuttings and mayors with their eyes
shut before finding the pearls. But pearls were found: a
blood-spattered Miles Davis being arrested after fighting with a
police officer who had ordered him off a Manhattan sidewalk, Dorothy
Dandridge with Samuel Goldwyn, and Joe DiMaggio in a batting cage at
What will happen to the still-unshucked images? They will be going
to the mine with the rest of the pictures. Eventually some will be
digitized, Mr. Hannigan said, "but how and when has not been
finalized." The mine will be staffed by only two people, one for
research and one for scanning. With such a small staff, the prospect
of finding hidden gems or doing much digitizing seems remote.
Meanwhile, Corbis's most popular photographs say, the picture of
John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting his father's coffin will become ever
more popular. Even now, Mr. Johnston said, "the same stuff is seen
over and over again." Of all the pictures that Corbis owns, he said,
"only a small amount have ever been used for stories a tiny
percentage." And the more pictures are requested, the more they are
requested. Visual history is doomed to repeat itself.
But at least the history won't disappear. Corbis is lucky, Mr.
Hannigan said, that "its owner is wealthy enough and committed
enough to build the new facility." But critics are quick to point
out that Mr. Gates is probably also rich enough to finish digitizing
the collection and choose a more accessible location.
Many other photo and film collections are digitizing, and many have
off-site storage facilities. The Museum of Modern Art has one in
Pennsylvania and the Library of Congress has one in Maryland. But,
Ms. Buckland said, "they are not packing up and moving out." Why
should all of the Bettmann and U.P.I. photographs be moved when not
all of them are in immediate danger? "Why send every one out to the
boondocks just because a few are ailing?" she asked.
She added: "These images are part of our history and culture, a
sacred trust, and if Bill Gates is buying it up, he's creating a
monopoly situation by not giving access to it."
But the collection "was never a public trust," even in Bettmann's
time, Mr. Hannigan said. "It has always been privately held," a for-
profit business. "We don't allow people to get to the originals
now," he added. And for most of Corbis's clients, like People
magazine, American Heritage magazine, cable television stations and
advertisers, it is easy to find a photograph to suit their needs.
"It doesn't matter to them whether it's a daguerreotype or a digital
image," Mr. Hannigan said.
And scholars, he said, can always look on the Corbis Web site
(www.corbisimages.com) for a picture they want or have a Corbis
researcher help them. If they need an image that hasn't been
digitized, it can be defrosted and scanned in the mine. All of the
written information that exists about the collection in card
catalogs and logbooks will be in the digital database by the time of
the move. So, "If we can find it now," Mr. Hannigan said, "we can
find it then."
But maybe retrieving specific images is not the point. "I want to
see everything," Ms. Buckland said. "I don't think Bill Gates
understands the importance of originals." Maybe, she said, he is
figuring that "as long as he keeps the reproduction rights, who
cares about the objects?"
It is just the opposite, Mr. Wilhelm said. "I believe that thousands
of years from now, Bill Gates will be remembered for having
preserved and made digitally accessible a very important segment of
our photographic history," he said.
Burial means different things to different people. To some it means
preservation. To others it means death. "Conservators will think
it's the greatest thing," Mr. Hannigan said. "Others will think Bill
Gates locked up the collection and threw away the key."
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company
Karsten M. Self <firstname.lastname@example.org> http://kmself.home.netcom.com/
What part of "Gestalt" don't you understand? There is no K5 cabal
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