Recently, Corbis launched The Green Cabinet on Tumblr, where historic news images –most never seen before – can be viewed and appreciated by the public. Corbis has gone to great lengths to preserve and now share rare and beautiful images from the United Press International picture archive, some dating back to 1880.
With more than 11 million images at his finger tips, we asked Ken Johnston, Director of Photography, Historical and Editorial, a few questions about the archive and why he’s so excited to share the images on the Green Cabinet Tumblr page.
CORBIS: How has the style and value of modern news photography changed since the early days of analog photography?
KEN: I’m not certain it has changed much. Perhaps in a general sense news photography used to be about information first, style second, and now it’s more the reverse. But that’d take a lot to prove. Maybe it is about what got published in the past vs. what gets published now, that you tend to see a more “overtly” stylized type of news imagery now than previously.
But overtly stylized news photography has been with us all along. I mean, the sort of subjective quality, or conscious style in Lucien Aigner’s work from the 30s can sometimes predict the look of Koichi Sawada from the 60s or Ron Haviv now — not exactly the same of course but my point is it is not so much a new style as new eyes accepting more styles and them making their way into the places where news photography lives.
I do right now see more news images that are about conveying feeling more than fact, or what passes for fact. One could hazard that the value of news imagery has lowered, simply because there is more of it circulating now. I think news photos are now expected as part of a story and are only occasionally rare. There used to be much novelty around on-the-spot photography, because there wasn’t likely to be as many photographers covering certain stories, and it took more effort and expense to transmit and print images. Textual news was the norm for most of the 20th century, pictures were extra. But perhaps things have now equaled out a bit and that would mean an actual increase in image value, against a lowering of text value.
The pictures in the Green Cabinet have all for the most part lost whatever their initial value was as news. So what do we see in them now? In many cases I am not certain what value they have beyond that they tickled something in me, and I put them out there to see what reaction they get. It is interesting to see what spreads and what doesn’t. In fact it looks pretty nonsensical at the moment.
CORBIS: How do you choose which photos will be shared on the Green Cabinet Tumblr account?
KEN: The dream we all seem to have about this archive is that you can just reach into it and pull out gems — that if you just keep digging you will find something rare and beautiful. It feels that way when you are physically in it, opening a drawer, finding 2000 negative envelopes; it suggests that there’re always better images to find. But the gems are not what you expect – the GC shows what you actually find.
All of these images were selected by Bettmann editors for one reason or another, chosen against other not so viable images that were not selected. But most never sold. So these are images from the back of the shelf, the stuff that has not circulated despite its having been scanned years and years ago. It’s often clear why these images didn’t sell as they are dated in topic and look, or don’t tell an obvious story, or are just–peculiar.
I seem to have picked many images of occupations: coffin tester, egg inspector, housefly checker. Perhaps there is some analog there to what I think I am doing? It is interesting too that guns figure into a lot of the images. This is because guns are built-in to America and so show up endlessly in the archive, not an overt comment by me. Kids, lots of kids…the old phrase “human interest” is key, here.
CORBIS: What measures are taken to preserve these images?
KEN: Cold storage, primarily. Controlled humidity, constant temperature and as little handling as possible are the main things. We do some repackaging when necessary, but generally speaking the chill air slows the molecular activity down enough to keep everything – the negatives, the prints, the captions and envelopes – suspended as they were when we moved it into the Preservation Facility. So, no more rotting. There’s plenty of explanation on the web about vinegar syndrome and such, so I won’t go into here.
CORBIS: Corbis has gone to great lengths to properly archive these images; why has no one else done this?
KEN: I wouldn’t say no one else has done it. Museums, etc., do it. It is somewhat unusual for a corporation to undertake it on the scale we did but we had to or else the film would decay beyond use. Other companies may or may not preserve their film: it has to do with economics, how far-sighted they are and how much value they perceive is in their collection. Looking at it from a cold business perspective you could say we had to do what was needed to save the assets we owned, otherwise what would have been the point of buying them? But of course it was bigger than that; this was truly about saving the largest, most intact 20th Century news archive. It is not marketing hype when I say it is a cultural treasure.
CORBIS: What excites you the most about being part of the UPI (United Press International) picture archive?
KEN: Tough question – there are many things. There’s the curatorial part of it, that I get to stand outside this giant unwieldy thing and try to understand its secrets. And a caretaker aspect, that I, with Corbis, get to be the advocate as it were for all these photographers, illustrators, caption writers, and physical pieces of film. Going through the actual archive, pulling negatives, hoping to find something intriguing is alternately frustrating and exhilarating as there is always the feeling, for me anyway, that the next negative you look at will be exactly what you are looking for. It can be like chasing a mirage. So the archive, I don’t know, sort of enchants me, when I am able to compulsively noodle around in it. That’s something that excites me about the archive, chasing images, aside from all the astounding work it contains.
CORBIS: In your extensive experience with the archive, can you tell us about any one particular photo that you found especially interesting and why?
KEN: I get this question a lot and always find it difficult to answer. I should have a pat reply for it, but refuse to make one! After living with this massive archive for over 25 years I don’t really seem to gravitate towards single images any longer. There is such a radical variety of imagery in the archive, so many methods and styles, accidental and formal that I could never settle on a single favorite. Of the images that have appeared so far on the GC, the shot posted February 4th depicting various gun angles is probably my favorite, or one that is closest to what the GC is about for me. There is little chance that this image would ever see use again as the story it refers to has not been news for decades and the image itself isn’t of any actual event related to it. It might possibly be revived as an example of how news info used to be presented, what passed for “proper” information at one point (if in fact it did), or how similar or dissimilar it is to what we see today. Personally I just like just like the way it is built, patched together, a photo of photos, a diagram of sorts, around a mystery.
CORBIS: What features about Tumblr work best to present the Green Cabinet?
KEN: I like how images spread via Tumblr. These poor pictures where the physical bodies, the glass or plastic negatives and transparencies or paper prints, are by necessity locked in the archive, well, via tumblr they can float free. Tumblr is a weightless magazine to “print” these pictures in, easily exchanged. It is only important that they get released – if it draws people to Corbis that is great but the key thing is just the showing, the exposure and Tumblr is a pretty easy way to show things.
Follow The Green Cabinet on Tumblr