The Bettmann Archive Has Lost Its Collective Mind

From the NY Times this Saturday, front page:

"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. 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.

" . . . 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."

GODAMM! I used Bettmann photos in all of my books, and I work hard to find the unsual, rare photos that haven’t already been published countless times. I already checked off six Bettmann photos I want to use for my next book, but it never occurred to me to ask, “Say, are you planning to bury these in a coal mine?” I just called my account person and he said, “I suggest you order prints NOW.”

So—that’s millions of rare images off-limit to authors, historians, reseachers for the next thousand years or so . . . Idiots. I wonder if Nicholson Baker (my hero of the moment) knows about this?

Gahhh! What the hell is the point of having an archive if nobody can look through it?

Hmmm, Snuck out of Nazi Germany to be delivered into the hands of Bill Gates, who is going to make it so no one can see them any more. I’m not sure whether thats hysterical, ironic, or just really sad.

The conceit is just jaw-dropping.

…on the other hand, I thought all that stuff about Iron Mountain – the Pennsylvania limestone mine-cum-high-security storage facility --was the COOLEST. I wonder how much it would cost me to get a one-bedroom apartment down there?

Okay, sorry.

Yes, this does have a definite ring of “destroying the village in order to save it.” Which makes one think of Vietnam, and thence the Cold War, and thence Dr. Strangelove, and finally the line about the “mine-shaft gap.”

What the goddamn hell? Are you fucking SHITTING me?

Is there anyway to convince them otherwise?

Where can I find some Bettman photos? I’m always looking for stuff on European Royalty-Romanovs, Serbia Royalty, England, etc etc…

  • First, let’s set aside for the moment the entire discussion of HOW these people attained their enormous wealth. Let’s not hijack this into a Robber Baron thread, ok?*

Bill Gates suffers a critical thought process gap, considering that he’s the world’s wealthiest individual. He attained that wealth in an era of social narcissism. Andrew Carnegie, the Fricks, the Annenbergs, etc- all attained vast fortunes. They returned said fortunes to a small degree to society as they saw fit. Andrew Carnegie and (??Firstname??) Melon provided funds for what today is Carnegie-Melon University. ( Carnegie also built his Music Halls in Pittsburgh and New York City ). The Annenbergs shovelled fortunes back into the education system for theatre and media. And, so on.

It seems that Mr. Gates is not interested in making the finest use of his aquired assets in this area. The very idea that there is to be ONE Scanning Technician for- as near as I could count, and I’m okay with my counting these days-over 50 million images is staggering. The insult to the very idea of calling this collection an Archive is huge. When one buys DaVinci’s writings and sketches, or a collection such as Bettman or Sygma, I feel that one assumes a social liability. Yes, a liability. You are now the custodian of social history, far beyond just the owner of assets. You bear a personal responsibility for the careful, thoughtful and useful dissemination of those assets- for profit, yes. But still, they remain larger than the individual who owns them.

For not a lot of money relatively speaking, Mr. Gates could rent more space under Iron Mountain and create the finest high speed state of the art scanning and retrieval facility in the world. Instead of one or two, he could have a cadre of handlers, cataloguers and scanning techs. It’s a very easy thing. All it takes is recognition of responsibility, and money. Mr. Gates seems to be sorely lacking in one, just as he has a great excess of the other.

It is a monstrosity that the materials shall be frozen and not accessable. NOT just because the creative Eve’s of the world can’t now find the right photos for their books, but because of something a bit more…organic. ( And, Eve I mean no offense by that as you shall see momentito).

There is the immeasurable importance of non-linear thinking and discovery. When Eve sifts through folders filled with photographs, her creative juices are not only flowing because she’s excited that she might find just the right image, but because she is open to any idea. Like all creative people are. To me the second largest crime here is that the ability to think out of the box is gone forever with such an immense array of visual media. Here…try this…

I was standing at the grave of President Theodore Roosevelt about 7 weeks ago. I was there shooting for the History Channel. While we were between shots, I walked over to his actual grave. Surrounded by high wrought iron fence. And, my mind just wandered. I came up with what I think is a very interesting idea for a documentary. Why? Because I was THERE, and being rather non-linear in my thinking at the moment. The same gift is presented to someone who, instead of filling out an order form on which they must write the EXACT image number they wish to purchase, is allowed to peruse images and see what percolates.

Mr. Gates has removed that possibility in one clean sweep. How many of us have gone off onto the Web looking for a cite for a posting here on the Straight Dope, only to discover something tangential yet fascinating. It’s what makes us who we are, the beneficiaries of higher thought.

He’s going to move that collection. All of them in the next few years, I’d wager. All we can do is try to impress upon him the value of assembling ALL 50 MILLION images into Terrabyte Disks that are then available for selection and purchase.

It’s his asset to do with as he sees fit. I just find it tragic that he doesn’t see fit to both profit from the investment and use it for the betterment of society and historical analyses.

I wonder if he reads his own e-mails.

I’m griefstricken over this as well, there must be a way to appeal to that Great Social Mover and Shaker bit of DNA within that man. Because, it’s not some committee…it’s the decision of the individual. I can understand it, I just find it contemptable.


Guin—No, I am not fucking shitting you. Believe me, I wish I WERE fucking shitting you.

Ike—Yes, dear, but EVERYTHING makes you think of “Dr. Strangelove.” I could say “My pen is out of ink,” and you would think of “Dr. Strangelove.”

Cartoon—I have a cache of maybe six stock-photo archives I work with on each book. Maybe half of them actually let me go through their files by hand, which is such a delight! Leafing through these old photos, trying to find the best, rarest one . . . And you should see the hand- or type-written notes on the backs, some going back more than 100 years! For me, that’s one of the best parts of book research (I spend a FORTUNE on photos, as I figure even if people don’t like my writing, they’ll like the photos!).

Well, it looks like now I’m down to about FIVE stock-photo houses . . . Bastards.

Good lord…that fucking SUCKS.

I mean, every Romanov book I own has Bettmann Archive under each photograph…bastards.

…oh yesh. And some of the pictures I really want aren’t available for sale…which means I have to save the Watermarked ones…oh well.

Good lord, they’ve got Nicky, and Alix…and OTMA and Alexei…and King Alexander of Yugoslavia, and Queen Victoria…

Um… I’d love to read your writing. :slight_smile:

As for the notations?? I once held in my hand photographer’s proofs from the production of the original film, “The Magnificent Seven”. Fool that I was, I sold them along with the other 4,700 B&W stills from press kids and collections that I’d amassed over the years. I needed the cash to help pay for my first Steadicam, but still- I never should have sold those proofs. They were on heavy matte paper, not thin repro stock. They had notes, and neg sheet numbers on the back. <sigh>.

See…it’s the treasure trove feeling, not just the lost images that hurts. Eve- please email me the titles of your works?


Um, that should have read, “press kits”. Sorry.

It doesn’t make me think of Dr. Strangelove; but it DOES make me think of Dr. No.

You needn’t worry. Gates is just using the moving of the archive as a front for setting up an underground bunker/missile silo from which he will hold the world hostage to the demands of his evil organization, SPECTRE (which is currently using the front organization, Microsoft). The photos will remain available right up to when the missiles start flying.

Cartoon—aren’t you sweet. I think the SDMB frowns on plugging one’s own work, so I’ll just tip ya off to look under “Eve Golden” on, all my books are listed there.

In the Everett Collections files, I once found a lovely still of Virginia Rappe—the girl who died in the Fatty Arbuckle scandal—and on the back was printed her resume, complete with her address, phone number and career ambitions. You don’t GET that from a computer database!

So you going to come across with that phone number, or do we have to beg?

That’s a particularly sad story. I’ve got a book sitting in front of me now called “The Day The Laughter Stopped”. It’s by one David Yallop, and is an exhaustively researched accounting of the supposed attack by Fatty Arbuckle on Virginia Rappe. Short version: He did not attack her at all. It’s 1976 by St. Martin’s Press, Library of Congress card # 75-40810.

Were you able to use the info on the back for a book??


Hijacking my own post—

POOR Virigina Rappe. The original “blame the victim” girl. In order to make Fatty Arbuckle seem less guilty, her reputation was smeared by people like Adela Rogers St. Johns, who called her an alcoholic slut who basically got what she deserved. It was spread about that she died of either a botched abortion or from VD (years later, it was pretty much proven that she died of a ruptured bladder, caused by an untreated urinary-tract infection).

Actually, Virginia Rappe had a respectible career for a starlet, a major director was in love with her—and I have read some of her reviews, all of which were raves. Sadly, I could not find enough on her for an article, let alone a book . . .

Here’s a photo of her, and of her grave:

WHO was Virginia Rappe-links please?

Back when Gates purchased the archive, there were people who saw this coming. After all, the man has built his fortune on controlling access to information. On the plus side, Gates is not the Taliban; he’s hoarding this treasure not destroying it. We can assume Gates will put the archive in quality storage, where it will be preserved until he’s passed on and the photos can be restored to general viewing.

Try this one…

It’s based on Kevin Brownlow’s books, so Evie MIGHT approve of it.

– Uke, sitting on the Kenneth Anger and Art Speigelman Arbuckle texts, shoving the Coca-Cola bottles into the pantry, and trying to look innocent