Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 26, 2019
Estelle Blaschke Banking on Images: The Bettmann Archive and Corbis Leipzig, Germany: Spector Books, 2016. 224 pp. Paper €32.00 (9783944669632)

In the first line of her book Banking on Images: The Bettmann Archive and Corbis, Estelle Blaschke describes William Henry Fox Talbot not as an inventor of photography but, more precisely, as “the inventor of photographic reproducibility.” Today Talbot is firmly ensconced in photographic history as a creator and author of unique photographic objects and publications, which are now prized as material testaments to his individual aesthetic and technical contributions to a new medium. But the shifting perceptions of this position are illuminated when his work appears later in Blaschke’s book as an example of an image that, only sixty years ago, was valued not as one made by Talbot himself but rather credited primarily to its archive as owner of the reproduced image. Here the value of the name “Talbot” is secondary both to his subject (a ladder) and to the owner of the reproduced image: the Bettmann Archive.

As the book demonstrates, these dynamics of subjective value—and the authorial and legal stakes of photographic reproducibility on concepts of ownership and authorship—have played out in the specific, and persistently paradoxical, realm of the photographic “image bank.” This form of collecting large quantities of photographic images is distinct, Blaschke argues, from other kinds of large-scale image repositories like libraries or archives. The book traces the complex economic, cultural, technological, and individual factors at play in both the early emergence of this distinct mode of pictorial accumulation and in its growth, from the curiosities of Otto Bettmann’s collection of the early 1930s to the late twentieth and early twenty-first-century ambitions of Corbis and Getty Images. Banking on Images is thus in dialogue with a trend in recent scholarship to attend to the business and market-driven aspects of photographic practice, identifying the deeply interwoven responsiveness of photographic understanding to both the realities and the demands of the image economy, and technical advancements in the medium. As such, the book attends to the inextricable role of the market and a broader commercial network in creating both meaning and value for cultural images and objects. It is equally useful for an emerging body of scholarship that seeks to trace historical foundations for understanding twenty-first-century image mobility and the material implications for more recent technological shifts.

The book is structured in three sections, beginning with a contextual summary of the rise of the picture market during Germany’s Weimar Republic, then moving into a close study of the history of one particular image bank, the Bettmann Archive, and concluding with a section on the impact of digital technologies on commercial image banks, including Corbis and Getty Images. Yet it is clear that the heart of Blaschke’s interest is the Bettmann Archive, the close study of which allows her to delve into the complex layering of determining factors in its origins and growth, as connected to: the systems of value emerging from advertising and illustrated magazines and their effect on the entanglements of copyright and image ownership; questions of image retrievability and their corresponding systems; the implications of image mobility; the sometimes competing challenges of accumulation, “visual waste,” and preservation; and the demonstrated subjectivity of authorship as it pertains to aesthetic and artistic value.

One particularly enlightening section is devoted to Bettmann himself: not the company, and not the collection of individual photographic images, but the person, Otto Ludwig Bettmann, a German Jew born in Leipzig in 1903 who immigrated to the United States in 1935. His doctoral dissertation at the University of Leipzig centered on the impact of copyright law on the eighteenth-century German book trade, and Blaschke deftly traces how this scholar’s interests moved from the academic to the commercial. Bettmann worked initially as a librarian at the Staatliche Kunstbibliothek (National art library), immersed in archival work, before using his new 35mm Leica as a tool to easily reproduce the illustrations inside those art library books. Bettmann got hooked on this new pictorial project, and leveraged his credentialed position as an academic and librarian to easily access an enormous breadth of material at a range of state cultural institutions all under his one-man (and, in hindsight, subversive and cutting-edge) operation as a copy stand photographer. In this role, he functioned not unlike the artist Richard Prince today, mining the uncertainty around copyright law and, in particular, the confusion that photography’s multiple roles (as both document and art form, object and reproduction) presented to establishing legal claims of either authorship or originality.

Blaschke skillfully weaves these intricacies: the unique challenges photographs present to the legal code, the possibilities unfurled by the handheld camera’s ability to “free” pictures heretofore held inside books inside libraries, and the corresponding shifts in both cultural and economic value of those newly mobile images. The connections to the challenges faced in corresponding contemporary realms of practice, now in the year 2019, are evident. This brings an additional layer of value and significance to Blaschke’s work, and also points to the urgent need for greater clarity and understanding today: the challenges posed by the increasingly mobilized photographic image to archival storage, access and findability, and questions of copyright and authorship as they relate both to business and to aesthetics clearly have a distinct historical precedent.

The examples in this volume primarily center around the Bettmann Archive’s evolution over the twentieth century, through its purchase by Corbis in 1996 and subsequent incorporation into a vast archive of primary documents (of which the Bettmann Archive is but a small portion) at the Iron Mountain data center outside of Pittsburgh. With similar attentiveness to practical questions of organization, access, and the plainly subjective and ever-shifting measure of economic value, Blaschke brings a useful clarity to the perhaps counterintuitive way that the move toward digitization of these photographic prints in fact makes their status as material objects concrete. As Banking on Images charts, for a period, vast archives of photographic material offered the promise of a relatively uncomplicated transfer into digital surrogates. But the reality of the endeavor—underway in earnest after the Bettmann Archive’s acquisition by Corbis, but slowed considerably since then—has been far more demanding than anticipated on time, resources, and human labor. In practice, photographic prints prove again and again that they are uniquely challenging in their conservation and preservation needs, deeply resistant to adequate verbal description (necessary for keywords and other metadata methods of access and findability), and materially fragile (prone to fading or, in the case of nitrate film, which is common in archives of twentieth-century photographic material, spontaneous combustion). And, to make matters more complicated, their digital surrogates are even less stable—very material bits of code that require diligent maintenance and upkeep, all at a cost.

One new challenge that Banking on Images does not touch upon is the increasing role of computer vision and artificial intelligence in the description and thus interpretation of photographic images. Innovation in this direction is no doubt already having a profound impact at precisely the intersection of technological advances, materiality, commerce, value, and meaning that propels Blaschke’s interest in the earlier material. Banking on Images describes the significant trials of meaningfully describing photographic content at the level of keywords, which have been the primary method of searching archives. In the case of the Bettmann Archive, only a very small percentage of the material has been scanned in the first place (some 240,000 images from a total volume of two million images). This, of course, profoundly affects the ability of researchers—whether scholars or advertisers—to find images from within a vast accumulation of material. Computer vision offers the potential of “seeing” images without the human labor of producing keywords, and thus the possibility of an expanded view of material that has already become hidden by its lack of mobility from the material to the digital archive. And yet, new challenges clearly await this latest iteration.

Kate Palmer Albers
Associate Professor of Art History, Whittier College, Los Angeles