Monday, December 10, 2007

Tips for On-line Photo Research

When I was completing my first book, Cold War Civil Rights, I did my photo research the old fashioned way. I went to the offices of Corbis-Bettmann in New York City, since they had rights to pictures taken by United Press International photographers. It was a goldmine, if a somewhat chaotic one. Jammed in rows of file cabinets were aging 8x10 glossy images and contact sheets. Once I located the right file, I could simply pull it out, take it to a table, and pour through all the images they had related to my topic. The contact sheets would have the photo frames before and after an iconic image, published in newspapers, was taken.

There are still places where this sort of photo research can be done. But not at Corbis, a Bill Gates company, which acquired the UPI archives. Not long after I completed my research, all those old images and the original film were moved for safe storage to a vault deep in a refrigerated mine shaft outside of Butler, Pennsylvania, the Iron Mountain Storage Facility. The film will certainly be better preserved there. But gone are the days when you could pour over the contact sheets and find images that were never published – images that might unlock secrets in the history you are writing, even if they would never had made it into a magazine.

The good news, of course, is that Corbis digitized millions of the images in its holdings, and the digitized images can be found on-line. There is no longer a need to trek to New York. You can even do your research in the middle of the night, using Corbis’s useful search function. Corbis is the most well-know of the on-line commercial photo archives, and it is also the most expensive of any I have used. Since authors often bear the cost of rights for their photos, you may find it beneficial to shop around.
Other commercial photo archives also have excellent collections, and you may find a better image of an event by searching for photos held by different vendors. Events in my new book take place in the U.S., Kenya and England, so I tried British photo archives. To my surprise, sometimes a British archive had images of events in the U.S. that were better for my book than those I found in U.S. sources.

While commercial archives can be essential for some purposes, they will often be the back-up to other places you rely on for images during the course of your research, such as the Library of Congress, which has digitized some of its extensive holdings. Some Library of Congress images are in the public domain, which means they can be used without restrictions. Some of these images are outstanding, such as a striking Carl Van Vechten photo of Josephine Baker that I found for the cover of the Journal of American History, accompanying my article on Baker. Be aware, though, that obtaining rights for some images can be time-consuming and uncertain. You seek rights from the copyright holder, but a copy of the photo from the Library of Congress, so there is a two-step process. The Library has an expensive option for expedited photo orders, but it is not available for all images. Although I phoned ahead to go through the ordering process with a staff member, I did not learn that a couple of images I was interested in could not be expedited until after I placed an order. The lesson here is to order LOC prints well in advance, even if you don't yet know whether you'll be using them in your book.
Presidential libraries also can be an excellent source. I was able to look through well-organized file drawers full of images at the LBJ Library in Austin, which has some if its images on-line. The photos I needed were in the public domain, so there are no copyright costs. Copies of high resolution images were only $10 a piece, and I received them much more quickly than the timeframe listed on the website.

For research in commercial photo archives, here are places to get started:

AP Photo Archive
This is the place to go for Associated Press photographs. Access is not always easy. You need to log in from a participating university or library. You may find that you can access it on campus, but not from home unless you have a VPN hook-up. (I tried the registration process to get off-campus access, but that didn’t work for me. The email I was supposed to receive with information enabling me to log in never arrived.) Once you get past this hurdle, however, you get to a site with an effective search function, making images easy to find, but that is not quite as user-friendly as the bigger commercial sites. Once you find what you need, contact information for ordering images is here. Just one phone call got me to a very helpful, knowledgeable and pleasant staff member. From that point, photos were easy to order, and the cost was comparatively low.

Getty Images
Getty’s collection includes many images of events in American history, such as the civil rights movement. At the Getty site, you can save images in a "lightbox," enabling you to keep track of your research. You can then copy them into your shopping cart when you’ve made final selections. Lightboxes are very helpful not only for organizing your research, but also for collaborating with colleagues or with your editor, since you can e-mail your lightbox to others. When I called about ordering photos, the staff was professional, helpful, and just as nice as the AP staff.

Corbis is the big kid on the block, with 100 million images in its collection. The set-up is very similar to Getty, making it easy to navigate, save and share images. Be sure to try to contact Corbis well in advance of your deadline. They have the capacity to act quickly, and the staff this time handled my queries and my order in a timely way. But with a past project, I sometimes had trouble getting a return e-mail from my Corbis contact, leading to an unnecessary time crunch at deadline time. This is a for-profit operation, and academics are probably not high rollers, and so not high on their priority list. You can find excellent images, but give yourself enough time for the occasional snafu.

Alamy is a British photo archive, with 10.58 million images in its collection. This site also uses lightboxes and is easy to navigate. I found two exceptional photographs for my book, including a photograph of a police officer pursuing a demonstrator, as firefighters doused others with a high-powered hose, during the famous civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama, in May 1963. It was taken by legendary civil rights photographer Charles Moore. There are more high quality images of events in Birmingham on this site than I was able to find at either Corbis or Getty. I reached a helpful staff member with one easy phone call, and the ordering process was easy and efficient.
These are just the sites I’ve used recently. There are others, and suggestions of alternatives would be most welcome, either in the comments or by emailing me.

How do you order photographs? For all but AP, you’ll see a shopping cart option where you can order photos. But you should contact a representative by phone to discuss the sort of rights you need and the pricing.

How much do rights cost? It depends on the kind of book (academic or trade), the size of the image, the print run, and the kind of rights you need (U.S. or world, print and/or electronic, etc.). It’s not a good idea to underestimate print run to get a lower rate, since if your print run turns out to be higher, you’ll have to pay again (this happened to me with Cold War Civil Rights). Costs vary, but it’s important to know that most vendors will cut their initial price. If you’re publishing with an academic press, and your book is headed for principally an academic market (in spite of your broader ambitions), stress this point and see if it brings the cost down. A little good natured begging aimed at a congenial vendor just might help you stay in your budget.

How do you receive your images? For Corbis, Getty and Alamy, photographs are downloaded from their websites or a link they email you. AP images are provided by e-mail. This led to a problem when one of my images got blocked, apparently by my email program. AP was able to work around this by making the file smaller by reducing the photo’s resolution (from 400 dpi to 300 dpi). Higher resolution will result in a crisper image, so I asked them to follow up by sending me the higher resolution photo on a CD.

If you can’t find the right image anywhere, you can ask them to do research. Corbis, Getty, Alamy and the AP archive did searches for me. All were fairly quick – AP’s turn-around is 24 hours and Corbis takes a few days. AP found an image of Thurgood Marshall in Nairobi that I had seen in anther book and knew was an AP image, but that was not in their digitized holdings. Corbis located several images of Tom Mboya in Kenya, though none were what I needed for the book. However when I asked Corbis to look for more images of the 1963 civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama in May 1963, they replied that the digitized images on their website were all they had. For such a widely covered event in civil rights history, UPI photographers certainly would have snapped more photos. I found what I was looking for at Alamy.

And so, while I miss the old days in the cluttered office of the old Corbis-Bettmann, there is something to be said for doing this research at any hour of the day or night, and without leaving your family. And there are many images to be found through on-line archives, especially if you try more than one.