Archive Photos.

by Tim Soter

ABOVE:  Jacqueline Kennedy, vintage print

Today I offer up a little bit of New York City photo history.  After moving to NYC right out of college back in 1994, Archive Photos was the first “real” job I worked at.  As the name suggested, Archive Photos was a physical archive of vintage photos that magazines, book publishers, television outlets, ad agencies, etc would borrow and license.   The photos, almost all of them somewhat crudely housed in file cabinets had been acquired by the owner, Patrick Montgomery, who as I understood it, had purchased them in lots, through people’s estates, directly from older, retired photographers and even flea markets.  By the company’s own description he had amassed a “collection of over twenty million photos.”

Beautiful, vintage and historical photos were sent out to the clients and my job was to check the return of the images, usually returned in a messengered or Fed Ex’d box.  After my first week, I was alarmed to find that often some photos would come back damaged, bent in half or creased.  Sometimes the return would be incomplete, with some photos missing.  Fresh, eager and naive I approached my boss and blew the whistle, “Hey there are a lot of missing and damaged photos!  What do we do to the clients?”  I thought I was asking a question that would tighten up the company and save them thousands of dollars.  I found out though that the clients were sent a bill, but since they were all reccuring clients, there wasn’t much effort put into collecting on the damages.  This was pre-digital,  just on the cusp which meant that most of the quality photographs sent out were originals – unique prints.  Irreplaceable.  An example of what the archive might offer: If you wanted to see the history of Coney Island in pictures, you could come to Archive and open up a drawer and leaf through them… giant, overflowing folders of beautiful, original, vintage photos.  It was very much like working in a Museum of Photography.

The offices occupied two floors over on the very west end of 25th street, now the heart of the Chelsea Gallery scene.  Back then however it was hooker’s row, and you could literally count the condoms on the way to work.  A story I heard at the time was that the companies that owned utility vans that were parked on the streets used to keep the roll-up backs unlocked so that prostitutes who were having sex in them wouldn’t break the locks each night.  My coworkers were all artists, this was our day job but at night we all had other projects we were involved in.  I was shooting the start of a long documentary project on underground DJs, while others were painting, dancing, playing in bands.  We would all go to each others’ performances after hours, during the day we would swap headphone music and stories.  Back then there were several independent photo archives, each usually with their own specialty… AllSport, Tony Stone, Gamma Liaison, Image Bank, Sygma, Retna … if you didn’t like working at one place you had a lot of options as to where to move to.  (Now those smaller agencies have almost all been bought up, mostly by Getty Images.)  Patrick Montgomery made it feel like a small company (which it was) and organized film screenings every month or two down at Anthology Film Archives.  He got into the business because he really loved photography.  The last time I saw him was a Swann gallery looking at some nice vintage prints up for auction.

After about a year I was put onto the project of trying to digitize the archive; this was a very early attempt to invent a way of digitally cataloging and organizing a huge photo archive – the equipment – flatbed scanners, slide scanners – were all completely new as well.  I would work on a naming convention for weeks, even months only to scrap it as someone above me had decided to rethink it all from the beginning.  Digital transmission of images was also just being implemented but it required a lot of time and patience, transferring plug-ins into folders and using slow ISDN lines.  It was however, the beginning of a very different way to share photography… as well as monopolize and hoard photography.

At some point the company was editing and consolidating its physical archive and I and other employees were in charge of destroying piles of selected, old photographs.  ABOVE/BELOW:  A photo of Jacquie Kennedy that was torn in half which I rescued, mostly because of the beauty of it in its new altered state.  I never learned why we were being asked to destroy them.