Arts & Letters; Worth Thousands of Words

How a Refugee From Nazi Germany With Two Trunks of Images and Artifacts Spawned a Legendary Archive

By Marion Lignana Rosenberg

Published November 21, 2003, issue of November 21, 2003.
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This fall has brought a sumptuous bounty for lovers of photography and Jewish culture. Several blockbuster exhibitions are on view, including “The Jewish Journey: Frédéric Brenner’s Photographic Odyssey” (at the Brooklyn Museum of Art); “As Seen By…,” images from Life magazine by distinguished American Jewish photographers (at Manhattan’s Center for Jewish History); and “Diane Arbus Revelations” (at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). Along with them have come a number of toothsome texts, including the Arbus exhibition catalogue and Brenner’s “Diaspora: Homelands in Exile” (HarperCollins).

A shame, then, that “Bettmann 100,” the exhibition marking the centenary of Otto Bettmann’s birth, came and went in a matter of days, making only the briefest of stops at New York’s Javits Center during a photography trade show. Fortunately, though, the exhibit will travel to Seattle, Los Angeles and other major cities in early 2004, and “Bettmann Moments: Celebrating the Bettmann Archives,” a limited-edition volume gathering several hundred of the collection’s most striking images, will be issued in conjunction with the tour.

A former curator of rare books at the Prussian State Library in Berlin, Bettmann arrived in New York in 1935 as a refugee from Nazi Germany with two steamer trunks of images and artifacts that would form the basis for the first commercial historical picture agency in the United States. Many of the images that define the iconic moments of the past century — of the Hindenburg being devoured in a fireball, Harry Truman chortling over the Chicago Daily Tribune’s “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline, John-John Kennedy offering a final salute to his slain father — are from Bettmann’s collection.

According to Ken Johnston, manager of historic collections for Corbis, before Bettmann, there were picture agencies — which focused exclusively on current events — and libraries, but they couldn’t service the commercial market. “Bettmann brought the two things together,” Johnston said. (Corbis is a division of Microsoft, which acquired the collection in 1995, three years before Bettmann’s death.)

Bettmann’s eye for dramatic, high-quality images and his creation of an exhaustive, meticulously classified collection had enormous consequences for journalism, particularly after the mid-1930s, when it became possible to transmit photographs via telegraphy. Photographers, once seen as “mere technicians” and passive recorders of facts, came to be acknowledged as authors of news on a par with text journalists, and in 1942, the first Pulitzer Prize for photography was awarded. In short, it was thanks in no small part to Bettmann that the 20th century came to be known as, in his words, “the visual age.”

Encompassing roughly 11 million objects (2 million to 3 million from the Bettmann collection proper, with the remainder acquired by Bettmann from UPI and other sources), the archives were recently transferred by Corbis from their former home in Manhattan to an underground, subzero storage facility in rural Pennsylvania. Digitization of the collection is ongoing (at the rate of 10 to 20 images a day, Johnston estimated), but so far only a small percentage is available over the Internet. Controversy erupted almost immediately after the move was announced, and it has continued to swirl. A New York Times article from 2001 relayed concerns from historians and researchers that Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates had “locked away [the images] in a tomb” in an attempt to create a “monopoly situation.” At the “Bettmann 100” show, one editor at a major New York publishing house sniffed, “I don’t go to the vault. I used the collection when it was accessible.”

“There was a misimpression that clients came in all day long and went through the files [of negatives] when we were in New York,” Johnston responded. “They occasionally came in, but they never went into the negatives.” Corbis justified the move by pointing to the molecular degradation that had already destroyed “huge chunks” of the collection. “A negative is a piece of plastic with gelatin glued to it. The gelatin holds the image, but the plastic loses its moisture over time and shrinks, so the negative wrinkles up” and becomes unusable. Cold storage can slow or arrest such decay. Images from the 1930s and 1950s suffered the most, Johnston said, “maybe because those two sections were near the open windows or the heater in the old archive. Nobody knows.”

While one can lament the partial (and, Corbis asserts, temporary) loss of access to the Bettmann collection, the importance of its preservation becomes apparent when one considers the thousands of images documenting the Holocaust, whose survivors are dwindling in number but whose deniers continue to multiply. Corbis, too, has built on Bettmann’s epochal undertaking by commissioning images from contemporary photographers documenting everyday life and the hot spots of today, including Afghanistan, the Middle East and Lower Manhattan. It seems likely that the 21st century, too, is destined to be a “visual age,” shaped by the enduring legacy of Otto Bettmann.

Marion Lignana Rosenberg, a regular contributor to Time Out New York and Opera News, has written about the arts for, Playbill and Boston Magazine.

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