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The Bettmann Archive: Martin Luther King During the March on Washington

BE001056 | © Bettmann/Corbis

The Bettmann Archive: New York Construction Workers Lunching on a Crossbeam

BE001089 | © Bettmann/Corbis

Adelle, Proxima Nova, and Turnpike, available at Veer

photo album

The story of the Bettmann® Archive begins with a man who set out to create a visual history of the world. When Dr. Otto Bettmann’s life’s work merged with the United Press International Photo Archive, it became one of the most significant historical collections of images around the globe. In order to preserve this international treasure, Corbis built a state-of-the-art storage facility — the Film Preservation Facility (FPF) — in Pennsylvania.

From Ken Johnston, director of photography, historical:

Otto Bettmann was a crate-diving collector, not a photographer. He gathered images to depict the complete visual history of the world, categorizing images after the fact. Most of the images he compiled were created pre-20th century. UPI, on the other hand, was a news service, a worldwide band of photographers shooting events as they happened. Otto and UPI ultimately achieved the same end — they documented history; Otto by digging through old books and archives, and the UPI photographers by scouring the world for news. UPI picks up where Otto’s work left off, resulting in a nearly complete record of world history.

Otto Bettmann was a crate-diving collector. UPI, on the other hand, was a news service, a worldwide band of photographers.

Maintaining an international treasure:
The Film Preservation Facility

The Bettmann Archive — a treasure of 11 million historical images — now lives in a former limestone mine in western Pennsylvania. In 2001, after a careful and extensive search aided by some of the world’s premier film preservationists, Corbis built a state-of-the-art, subzero film preservation facility at Iron Mountain. The 10,000-square-foot underground storage facility was chosen because it’s the most seismically sound and environmentally optimal location for film preservation in the United States.

“The FPF offers the best possible care for all sorts of photographic objects. It manages all of the preservation issues that come up, from vinegar syndrome to deteriorating envelopes and captions.”

Where it all started:
Dr. Otto Bettmann

The Bettmann Archive began as the picture collection of Dr. Otto Bettmann. In 1933, Bettmann was a young cataloger with a fondness for pictures, working as a librarian in Berlin. At that time, he created a visual index system for cataloging images that would one day give his archive a reputation for systematic order and easy access. When Bettmann left Nazi Germany in 1935, he took with him two steamer trunks full of pictures, books, and film. The contents — closely inspected at the border — made it through customs. Believing Bettmann was ein bischen verrückt (“some kind of nut”), the inspections officer waved him through. Bettmann’s arrival in New York City coincided with the dawning popularity of photojournalism. Movie newsreels and pictorial magazines had sparked what Bettmann called “the beginning of the visual age.” He created an industry for himself, collecting and classifying images for publication. Bettmann selected his pictures with an amazing eye for historical relevance, artistic composition, drama, and humor.

Into the 20th century:
United Press International

Although they were created in a completely separate world, many of the images in the United Press International Photo Collection are intimately associated with the Bettmann name. The UPI photo archive is the largest, most intact collection of 20th-century news service photography in the United States. Created in 1958, the UPI is the result of the merger of two competing news services: William Randolph Hearst’s International News Service and E. W. Scripps’ United Press. It contains images of all significant newsworthy events of the 20th century along with countless minor ones. Everything from major world conflicts to kittens up trees — the collection is an almost complete daily visual record of the 20th century.

“Despite being in a mine in Pennsylvania, these historical images are now more accessible than ever. Before these works were digitized, you could only see something if you had a specific project and only exactly what you asked for. It’s much more open now, online and ready to go.”

Bettmann at a glance

  • A crown jewel in the overall historical collection at Corbis.
  • Archive contains more than 11 million images.
  • Covers decades of irreplaceable moments, including key world events, social and cultural movements, and advances in science, medicine, and technology.
  • The addition of the United Press International archive in the 1980s made the Bettmann Archive the most substantial commercial historical collection in the world.
  • Corbis continues to scan images from the collection on a daily basis.
  • Prints and slides are stored in the Film Preservation Facility (FPF).
  • The FPF offers scan on demand for all non-digitized content via our research department.
Dr. Otto Bettmann

Ken Johnston | Video still by Karen Song

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