If cameras had never been invented, history, events, and remembrances would probably have been relegated to ancient and unreliable methods of recording and disseminating information: drawings, statuary, tapestry and hearsay.
Photojournalism arrived on the scene when big cameras rolled on to the battlefields of the Civil War. A couple generations later, the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Dorthea Lange, W. Eugene Smith and others showed you could record history by clicking a shutter.
In the 40’s and 50’s, the glory days of freelance photojournalism, brilliant photographers captured and interpreted the world. The results got published in the popular weekly magazines and periodicals of the day. Photojournalists were a collective Oprah to the masses.
Eventually, television’s nightly news took over as consumers chose that medium to get swift interpretations of daily happenings. Freelance photojournalism in the 70’s and 80’s was dominated by TV cameramen, paparazzi or staff photographers at major newspapers. They were making history.
In the 90’s, the media discovered that nostalgia and history are profitable. As the massive numbers of Baby Boomers arrived at middle age, early photos of Elvis, the Beatles, Chicago and Watts demonstrations, Marilyn and Vietnam became marketable.
TV documentaries about WWII, the Civil Rights movement and the Ken Burns series demonstrated that still photos that had been relegated to the attic trunk were valuable again. Veteran photojournalists are scrambling to their dusty archives to catalog photos they thought were forgotten and useless.
A new awareness of the value of archived photos has emerged. We are experiencing a new dawn of retro photojournalism. Not contemporary photojournalism (that’s effectively taken care of by television video crews and smart phone reporters), but photojournalism of bygone days.
What we once thought were photos that had lived their lives and were ready for cremation are now emerging as valuable assets. Photographers and publishers have realized that the Internet can be used as a tool to search out obscure collections of documentary photos hiding across the USA.
Gates to the Rescue
The commercial stock photo industry correctly realized that the Internet is an important vehicle for disseminating information about collections of generic photos that can be used for multiple purposes in advertising, promotion, education, and human interest.
Now the photojournalism world, having been in a cocoon for twenty years, has become aware that the Internet offers a superb opportunity to broadcast the whereabouts of millions of photojournalistic pictures that can now be called “editorial stock photos.” I estimate the total of such photos to be about 325 million.
It was Bill Gates who originally gave commercial credence to the notion that we ought to preserve and commercialize these historical photos, when he originally founded his “CONTINUUM” company (which then became “Corbis Images”) back in 1989.
The purpose of Continuum, and then Corbis, was to find, catalog, and disseminate “all of the important images extant.” Of course, these images had been languishing in important collections and catalogs all around the world but were generally available only to scholars and researchers.
Gates’ vision was to position himself to own, or partly-own, a massive amount of images that were hidden away in dusty archives. The market would be what he called the “New Media.”
Acquisitions manager Charles Mauzy helped Gates acquire impressive numbers of important photojournalistic images (the Bettman Archives, for example). Gates’ mission got temporarily sidetracked in 1997 when the bean counters at Corbis Corporation convinced him that collecting nostalgic photos had no short-term profit. Instead, they catapulted themselves onto the gold brick road of RF (“Royalty Free”) photos.
Although RF photos don’t bring high prices at a Sothbey auction or get featured in a traveling exhibit, they have undoubtedly helped pay salaries at Corbis.
Gates’ vision is not unlike the mission of the great Library of Alexandria in North Africa (7th century A.D.) where scholars of the ancient world could benefit from the accumulated knowledge of the time. Gates’ original mission for Corbis has led into a new age of Retro Journalism that recognizes the commercial benefits and vitality of historical photos.
Photojournalism continues to exist in its original essence – to show world happenings from both next door and abroad. The Internet and digital technology allow us to know when we click that shutter, the resulting photo will have a long shelf life.