A Rare Peek Into the Underground Safe Haven for Rare Historic Photos

Where do old photographs go when they are left behind in the wake of a digital age? As many may become lost forever, there are people working fervently behind the scenes (or in one case, beneath ground level) to help alter the fate of these images. In the depths of an old limestone mine in Iron Mountain, Pennsylvania stands the Bettmann Archives. This groundbreaking, yet relatively unknown, subzero facility is helping to restore and preserve more than 11 million historical images. Hillman Photography Initiative and the Carnegie Museum of Art developed this visually appealing and well-edited documentary about the archive:

Images of dark caves and underground waterways lead us to the entrance of the Corbis-Bettmann Image Archives. One would hardly think to find an image preservation facility underground, encased by glistening limestone walls next to water filled caverns. But the stable and easily manipulated environment of the rock mine acts as a safe house for this vast and valuable image collection—for a predicted 2,000 years!

corbis archives invisible photograph

Upon entering the facility, the very first words in the film are of Henry Wilhelm, the founder of Wilhelm Imaging Research:

“I love the images with a time stamp.”

Although Wilhelm meant these words in a more literal sense, they set the tone of what’s to come. It is the ability of recording an exact moment in time that make photography and photographs so special. But the physical results—the film and the photos—are stamps of time themselves. Invaluable information about the past is hidden in these glass slides and film.

bettmann archive invisible photograph
bettmann archives invisible photograph

This was the driving force behind Otto Bettmann and Corbis Preservation Facility’s work. The staff of the archive facility is extremely committed to the work they do, and the importance it has, and will continue to have, in society. Particularly as we advance into an age of digitization, the need for preservation of film artifacts has never been greater. Leslie Stauffer, the Production Control Coordinator at the archive facility explains,

“As technology changes, information is lost. Without the analog, that lost information would be lost forever. Only by preserving the original artifact can you always guarantee that you can replace that missed information…But without the analog, we are lost.”

Technology advancements and the rise in social media have played a big part in changing how photography is now made and viewed. It’s estimated that Facebook users upload more than 300 million pictures a day, earning the site the unofficial title of largest photo archive in the world.

Wilhelm describes the other shift in photography:

“Photography is now free. It’s not only free, but it can be disseminated all around the world instantly to as many people as one cares to disseminate it to, also for free, and instantly.”

Through a pessimistic eye, some see what was once a thoughtful and skillful art turned into a disposable and untreasured pastime with all the use of smartphone cameras, Facebook and photography applications.

But to the optimistic eye, there is also beauty in it. Wilhelm shares the benefits:

“One of the really exciting things is that more photographs are being taken by more people than ever before in history—by order of magnitude. And all the people that are involved in photography and imaging in their daily lives in ways never possible before.”

bettmann archives invisible photograph

Wilhelm is optimistic while sitting in a room of the Corbis Archives.

The documentary is thought-provoking at the very least. It’s fascinating to think what this extensive archive system might mean in 2,000 years. It also leaves us with a multitude of questions to ponder. How have our perceptions of art and photography grown, changed, or adapted with the incline of digital photography? What is to become of the digital photographer’s legacy? Will there indeed be a time when we revert back to film?

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