This Week: Buried Treasure
Hosted by Mary Battiata
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 19, 2003; 1 p.m. ET
In a frigid vault 220 feet beneath western Pennsylvania, a Bill Gates-owned company is preserving a growing collection of historical photographs -- approximately 11 million negatives, prints and slides in all. Is that a good thing? Or is the world's richest man hijacking our heritage?
Mary Battiata, whose cover story, "Can the Photos of the 20th Century Be Saved?" appeared in Sunday's Washington Post Magazine, was online Monday, May 19 at 1 p.m. ET, to field questions and comments about the article.
Battiata is a Magazine staff writer.
A transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Dumfries, Va.: Will the light required to scan old photos and negatives cause more damage than leaving the photos in darkness? Is it better to scan now than wait for the next generation of media preservation, whatever and whenever that happens?
Mary Battiata: Better to scan now, as I understand it. The light damage from a one-time scan is minimal.
Dumfries, Va.: Re: Photos made prior to 1940. Is there a deterioration problem with both the negatives and prints or just one or the other.
Mary Battiata: The problem is mostly with negatives. Circa early 1940s, black and white prints were made with fiber-based paper that now is considered, according to Henry Wilhelm, the high-water mark of photo permanence.
Alexandria, Va.: Is it possible to visit the "vault" if you are not a professional photographer, media professional... is it open to the public? I am currently a photography student.
I don't know, but I'm sure someone at Corbis would be willing to evaluate your request and let you know. Call or email their New York office or go to Corbis.com.
The vault itself is open to clients, or potential clients, though most choose not to visit and just do their researching from afar. Most of the clients are businesses, i.e., magazines and ad agencies, but I know Corbis (and Bettmann before it) also deals with individuals.
Centreville, Va.: First of all, must say that the article was very interesting and insightful. I work at a company that does image-processing (scanning, cleaning, etc.) so the information on Corbis and their digitization efforts was indeed very helpful.
I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about their scanning efforts. Do they want to scan all the images? Are they doing it all in-house? Have they considered outsourcing? Thanks!
Mary Battiata: They are doing the scanning in house, and they do not plan to scan all the images. But scanning is on-going.
Arlington, Va.: This was a very interesting article. Are the archives at Corbis available to anyone? Or were you able to gain access to their files because you work for the WP?
Since our snapshots are deteriorating I assume that home movie films are, too. My parents have a pretty extensive collection of 8 mm home movie films. Is there a way to preserve them? They haven't had a working movie projector in years, so they've been sitting in a box untouched in their Florida home for quite a while. I would like to transfer them to dvd or some other more stable medium, but since they're from the 60's and 70's mainly I wonder if there's anything left to save at this point.
Mary Battiata: The Corbis archive and the vault are open to clients ... individuals or corporate. I don't think there is a public tour (at least not yet) for people who are curious but who aren't actually looking to buy images.
Anyone -- client or not -- can browse the corbis Web site for photographs. What you'll get are small versions of anything that's online.
RE movie film: I didn't research that question for my story, but I believe the color permanence on that home movie stock is unstable -- my own personal experience with my parents' home movies from the 50s and 60s is that it's darkening and fading, depending on the reel.
Some people have been transferring home movies shot on 8 or 16 mm film to videotape. I imagine the same companies who've been doing those transfers are now doing it to DVD. That's the way I'd go, as I think the color transference would be truer.
Henry Wilhelm, the expert I quoted in my story, knows about this, and his book, "The Permanence and Care of Color Photographs: Traditional and Digital Color Prints, Color Negatives, Slides, and Motion Pictures" has much more information on this subject.
His company is called Wilhelm Imaging Research, and it's in Grinnell Iowa. Their Web site is www.wilhelm-research.com.
Baltimore, Md.: I have no reason to defend Bill Gates, but it appears to me that your article raises the issue of Gates holding Corbis strictly as a sensationalistic gimmick. You have shown no indication that he wishes to hold any influence, direct or otherwise, on access to the photos; thus he apparently isn't being a "censor" of history. Moving the collection out of New York to a temperature-controlled bunker is definitely in the interests of the collection (imaging if the 9-11 terrorists had landed the plane there instead -- or atop the Library of Congress?). And the archival preservation of photos is such a huge black hole sucking up money that, in the long run, Gates' actions might be construed as more altruistic than profiteering. I actually commend him for having the foresight to "invest" in history and not just shrug and say "oh, that's the Library of Congress' job" (And I can say, having done photo research at the LoC, they have an uphill battle, too). Comments?
Mary Battiata: I don't think I disagree with you. The article said that some critics early on worried that Gates was seeking to somehow hoard or otherwise corner the market on old photos.
As my story says, the evidence now is that he has done nothing of the kind (in fact it wouldn't even be possible, given the volume of photos out there), and that the vault is an act of both commercial necessity and cultural stewardship.
Dumfries, Va.: Do you know of a good home use software that can convert a scanned negative into a print?
Mary Battiata: I don't, but I can forward your question to an expert and see what answer I get.
Resend your question (with your email address) to me at the Washington Post (firstname.lastname@example.org), and I'll see what I can find out ...
Virginia: I noticed my pictures from the 1960s and 1970s are still "fresher" than the ones from today. Maybe a different kind of camera?
Mary Battiata: Yes, there are so many variables, including what kind of paper the pictures were printed on, the kind of film you were using, the quality of the camera lens, the photo processing method, storage conditions for the prints, etc.
Centreville, Va.: Is Corbis doing all the scanning in-house? Any idea whether they have tried outsourcing part of the job to make it faster, and to save cost?
Mary Battiata: I don't know if they ever outsourced the scanning, but I don't think manpower was the issue -- just the cost and relative saleability of 250,000 images v. 7 million.
Long Beach, Calif.: Aside from photos, libraries have divested themselves of American periodicals. Should Gates step in and archive our national heritage for commercial gain, or should we simply watch it fade away, with low-grade, mostly unreadable micro-film in it's stead?
Mary Battiata: Well, it's a good question. As Henry Wilhelm, the novelist Nicholson Baker and others have written, the question of preserving images, motion picture film, and newspapers, among other media, is a huge problem, and there is no answer yet.
I didn't get into it in my story, because I was concerned mostly with photographs, but Nicholson Baker has written and spoken out extensively on the problem of preserving newspaper archives, which in many cases are being quietly junked or left to rot once digital copies have been made. Preservationists, historians and archivists feel strongly, as do others, that the originals are documents of huge historical importance and must be preserved -- through cold storage ...
With that in mind, Henry Wilhelm's company, out in Iowa, is doing some cold storage of selected newspapers.
Long Beach, Calif.: Do you fear for a future with digitally edited photos that could very well misled? I've noticed photo montage commercials with 1920's cars for a pre WWI period, etc. Will large archives prevent this from happening?
Mary Battiata: I hadn't thought of it but, yes, those original photographs won't lie, and could be the standard against which doctored images are checked.
Montclair, Va.: I have many old (1920-1945) negatives. Are they in danger? Should I have prints made of them, or scan them, or both. What is the best method of preservation.
Mary Battiata: I'm not an expert, but from what i have learned I would say that if you can afford it, you should do both: have prints made and scan the negatives. And then keep the negatives in the right sleeving and store them in a cool, dry place, i.e., not the attic and not the basement.
Baltimore, Md.: How well would you rate the ability of a researcher to search the Corbis archives? Have you compared the process with, for example, online and in-person searches at the Library of Congress or the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.? Archives have different levels of accessibility -- HSWDC makes you fill out a request slip and they pull it out one item at a time; LoC made me spend two days getting security clearance but once in the room turned me practically loose willy-nilly. And then there's online catalogs.
Corbis won't turn anyone loose in the stacks -- neither did the Bettmann Archive before Corbis bought it. The set-up at the mine is medium security. I was given several dozen file folders full of prints to look at once I'd made my request, but I sifted through the files within eyeshot of two Corbis employes.
Grinnell, Iowa: Concerning scanning old, deteriorating photographs, it is certainly a good idea to scan them now. As Mary pointed out, the minimal light exposure during scanning will do no harm. Once scanned, you should make new prints using pigmented or high-stability dye-based inkjet printers, or take the scans to a Ritz camera store or Wal-Mart with a digital minilab and ask them to print the images on Fujicolor Crystal Archive Paper. Keep one copy in the dark (along with your precious original) and display a copy.
Mary Battiata: Here is a very useful reply from Henry Wilhelm to the reader who asked about the advisability of scanning negatives and whether the bright light of the scanner would damage the negative film ...
Long Beach, Calif.: Which major archives were purchased by Gates to create this new archive?
Mary Battiata: I give a partial list in the story: the Bettmann Archive, the archive of United Press International, a celebrity photo called Outline, two New York City based agencies, called ACME and INP, and others. Corbis has also bought smaller collections that specialize in certain subject matter, nature photography, for example.
Maybe you shouldn't convert to video: From my understanding, VHS videotape is even less stable than Super 8, particularly after repeated viewing. Since I don't have citations, you may want to do some intense research before committing everything to video...
Mary Battiata: Right.
Washington, D.C.: Very interesting article.
Can you say what the cost is for using of a Corbis-owned photograph? How is the cost determined and does it vary? Also, do they store the digital images themselves at Iron Mountain too and maybe other places as well?
Mary Battiata: I don't know the price structure. I have talked to two individuals who used the archive at a cost of $75 to $350, respectively, but I don't know what that paid for exactly.
Butler, Pa.: Just a comment - I think that by doing their scanning in-house it limits exposure to the negative or prints. The scanning lab is on-site, underground and secure. They're also only scanning images of "economic value," not starting at image 1 and going forward. It's difficult to predict what image their customer will request next, it's one here and one there. I don't think that scanning off-site is an option.
Mary Battiata: I think that's right.
Arlington, Va.: How expensive are their images? If I wanted to buy photo prints to hang on my wall do they cost a lot of money from Corbis?
Mary Battiata: I think the price depends on what kind of image you want, what size, etc. I know that Corbis is eager to make images available to private as well as commercial clients, so I imagine they'll be working in the days and years ahead to make the price attractive to both markets.
Arlington, Va.: For the person wanting to convert negative scans to prints, it should be fairly simple with any image software like PhotoShop. My film scanner from Canon came with PhotoShop. You just have to make sure you have a decent quality printer and paper to print onto.
Mary Battiata: Thank you. Information for the home scanner.
Front Royal, Va.: We have a collection of WW2 aircraft slides, along with some Korean. They are all color, about 35,000 slides. It is the Jeff Ethell collection. Bill Gates at one time offered to purchase them, but they were not for sale at that time.
Our problem is that they will deteriorate if not stored properly. All we have is a fireproof safe, so we need to sell them.
Any suggestions? How can we get a hold of someone who might be interested?
Mary Battiata: I don't know, but we're posting your question.
If we don't get an answer here today, you're welcome to send me your question at email@example.com, and I'll forward you any subsequent information that I get.
Meantime, I guess, the answer is to keep the stuff cool, dark and dry.
Baltimore, Md.: To the Arlington query about movie film: Make a transfer as soon as possible. Right now, as I understand it, the devices that were made for photo shops to transfer film to video haven't been made in years, and they are wearing out, with parts being cannibalized from older machines. It's entirely possible the mechanisms to transfer film to video will be inaccessible (or only at a steep price) even before the film fades. Yet another example of media obsolescence in the trade.
Mary Battiata: FYI to all home movie holders:
Baltimore, Md.: I've done a lot of research in the Prints and Photos Division at the Library of Congress, and I can say they're always looking for more money from grants and foundations to digitize and make accessible more of their photo files. But it's an uphill battle. There's no money to be made with public-domain photos; the costs, especially of cross-indexing so one can find the photos, are exorbitant; etc. Did you attempt to ask the LoC what their situations are, and what their standards, goals, etc. are?
Mary Battiata: Yes, I spoke to archivists at the Library of Congress and the National Archives. Those to government institutions have enormous photo collection and are in the process of building cool storage facilities that will house at least some of their photographs.
Somewhere, USA: Hello. This is Ken Johnston from Corbis. I wanted to contribute a bit of info.
Corbis doesn't currently offer public tours. I'm excited to hear the interest, though, as it confirms for us the value of the collection beyond the day-to-day business of selling pictures. I'll float the tour idea around, but don't think it'd be feasible for a year or so, as we move in.
Corbis continues to edit the collection, although not at the scale seen previously. We won't presume to anticipate all our client (or cultural) needs going forward, and so will always be accessing it. And even if Corbis doesn't choose something for digitizing, we will preserve it. Everything gets saved.
The initial spark for all this began totally from concern about the collection. As Ms. Battiata points out, the deterioration was severe, and the Iron Mountain facility offered the best possible care.
In addition to the collections Ms. Battiata mentions as being at the facility we also have Pacific and Atlantic, the New York Daily Mirror, WIlliam H. Rau, Kidder Smith and Lynn Goldsmith Inc.
Mary Battiata: Great. Ken Johnston, of Corbis, checks in with some information. Ken was a senior Bettmann Archive researcher before moving with the collection over to Corbis, and is one of the people at Corbis who know and care for that huge cache of photographs the way most of us know and safeguard the family photo album.
Brooklyn, N.Y.: I think Gates is to be applauded. In my historical work I have found that deterioration of paper materials from 1865 to about 1900 is a big problem. Some bound materials will literally crumble in my fingers if I touch them. This is heartbreaking for historians everywhere.
My mother colorized photos for years, beginning in the 40s, and those black and white prints on heavy, high-quality stock look as great today as they did when she worked on them.
The Corbis site is fun to browse; if am I not careful, I'm sure my company will lock me out of it, as they were forced to do with the New York Public Library's CATNYP and the American Memory materials at LOC.
Thank you for an informative article.
Mary Battiata: Thank you for reading. I'm familiar with the business of looking through old documents -- newspapers especially -- and seeing that they are turning to dust. It's heartbreaking.
And yes, the Corbis site is a wonderful one to browse, as is the Library of Congress, particularly their Farm Security Administration pictures.
Baltimore, Md.: You seem to harp needlessly on Bill Gates' ownership of Corbis. Do you have any evidence that he or anyone else is attempting any kind of censorship agenda, for want of a better way to phrase it? Certainly there are better ways for Gates to either make money (photo archiving is a black hole for money) or "dominate the world"; is it possible he just views this as a way to spend his money to benefit world history?
Mary Battiata: Again, the story presented the concerns of some critics, and answered them by saying that Gates' purchase of the Bettmann and other photo collections has turned out to be a lifesaver for pictures.
Washington, D.C.: How long ago were pictures printed on metal? I found one of these but have no idea how old it is. Probably late 1800s, early 1900s. Thanks.
Mary Battiata: I'm not sure what technology that would be. Maybe someone out there online today will know. I believe that glass plate negatives preceded plastic acetate film, and that the glass plate technology dates back to the latter decades of the 1800s, if not earlier.
Centreville, Va.: Do you know what percentage of Corbis' archive is digitized?
Mary Battiata: they've digitized about 250,000 of some 8 million images.
Baltimore, Md.: As much as Manhattanites might miss the ease of walking down the street to do photo research and whine about traveling to western Pennsylvania, has nobody considered the "sitting duck target" argument? Suppose one of the 9/11/2001 planes had smashed into the Corbis archive? And the Library of Congress, sad to say, is even more vulnerable -- if anything warrants protection by anti-aircraft missiles, it's the LoC, not the Capitol or White House (and that's a totally apolitical view, mind you!).
Mary Battiata: Some photo collections stored in the trade center towers were lost on Sept 11 2001. That vulnerability is very much on the minds of companies who decide to store assets in underground facilities.
New York, N.Y.: FYI for the person in Arlington, Va. asking about the purchase of Corbis images for home decorations. Hundreds of images are available for home use at barewalls.com.
It looks like they cost about $35.00.
Mary Battiata: FYI ...
Long Beach, Calif.: What is Reverend Moon doing in regards to Archival photos? He bought AP, right? Or was it UPI? Did he take over a large photographic archive? Thanks.
Mary Battiata: Interesting question, but I don't know the answer. The Rev. Moon's name did not come up in my reporting ...
College Park, Md.: How can I get involved in this project? That is, who can I contact for employment? Are they interested in World War II pictures? My father took photos during the War.
Thank you for providing this opportunity. A very interesting project.
Mary Battiata: I don't know exactly. I suppose you would contact Corbis in New York City and ask about their personnel dept.
Harrisburg, Pa.: Thank you for your article. There are old movie reels stored in our mountains in Pennsylvania, as they deteriorate very rapidly as well. Newspapers from the 18th century were printed on sturdy stock and last better than 20th century newspapers. There is indeed fear that, without these preserved memories in the mountains, that current history may be lost.
How quickly does digital information deteriorate? We are transferring government and business records onto discs, yet don't they have short life spans? I fear future historians will wonder about 21st century humans because so much of our information will be lost.
Mary Battiata: The question of digital permanence is just beginning to be explored ...
Henry Wilhelm and others are doing research these days on the question of the permanence of digital-ink printers. I know that documents produced by ink-jet printers, for example, fade relatively rapidly.
Vienna, Va.: I read your article with great interest, but was particularly struck by your search for photographs relating to your Italian-American heritage. I've been doing my own family research on Italian family members who arrived at Ellis Island between 1890 and 1910.
What were the names of the two photo companies you found that made their income from photographing the passenger arrivals? Do you know what years they were in business? And, where could I learn more those companies' photo archives (are they indexed by date, ship, etc.)?
There were at least two photo agencies that took pictures of steamship travelers arriving in New York in the days before air travel. Corbis purchased the two I know of -- ACME and INP. Those pictures are now part of Corbis' collection, but I don't know how much of those collections was retained up through the 1980s, how much was scanned, and how much of what there is is of a non-celebrity nature.
My understanding of the way those agencies worked is that they took pictures of arriving celebrities, for sale to newspapers, and they also took pictures of the non-famous travelers, for sale to those individuals. I don't know that the non-celebrity pictures would have been archived.
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