America’s X-Files: Exploring the Corbis film archive
Corbis Iron Mountain
It isn’t until you get to its car park that you realise the Corbis film preservation facility is not your ordinary photo archive. On a country road in Pennyslvania six hours due west from Manhattan there’s an inconspicuous hill where by 8am layer after terraced layer of saloons and family SUVs stretch way up the slope. There must be well over a thousand cars here but absolutely no sign of their drivers – no visible offices, no employees, no contractors squinting through their early-morning fag break.
First published in BA High Life Magazine, Feb 2016.
Down at the base, there’s a security booth and beyond it a great dark portal leading straight into the hillside. Ann Hartman, Manager of the Corbis archive, picks us up and drives us down the road into a scene from a Bond film. Through the portal is a great white-walled network of streets and offices mined from the raw stone. Roads branch out in different directions, spidering the inside of the hill with tarmac and traffic lights. Every few yards there’s a door leading into the rock or a space where a mined-out void still waits for occupants. Golf buggies zoom past commuter buses and sewage trucks head for the entrance, while everywhere there’s the hollow roar of giant air conditioning units. And there are people, lots and lots of ordinary-looking people walking along carrying files or foil-wrapped freezer bags full of pie for Thanksgiving.
This is the Iron Mountain National Data Centre and these are some of the 2,500 specialists who spend their professional lives mining information 250ft below ground. All those cars belong to experts in music or programming or data, and for anyone with even the smallest interest in American culture, this place is a proper bona-fide treasure-chest.
For the first half of the twentieth century, this place was used for limestone required in the production of Pittsburgh steel. By the 1950s the money had moved on, the Cold War had blown in, and owners US Steel had figured out a more lucrative use for all that empty space. They sold a portion of the mine to Iron Mountain who tidied the place up, paved the roads and replaced the stone with secrets.
There are, after all, huge advantages to storing things here. It’s environmentally stable, naturally cool, earthquake-proof, and access-controlled. The limestone seam had been mined in a grid pattern, leaving both a logical road system and thousands of potential vaults (spaces separated by 20ft of rock) for anyone needing secure storage. For clients like Corbis whose material is temperature-sensitive, the environment in those vaults can be adjusted to anything between normal and arctic. Some parts of the mine have been dammed and flooded, providing Iron Mountain with both a fresh-water drinking source and a lake to cool the servers. Over time the place has developed the outlines of a small town with its own subterranean fire service, medicare, ATM, lunchroom and coffee shop.
Corbis is unusual for being one of the few companies here to welcome a limited amount of publicity. Its assets are its images, so if people aren’t aware of those images, those assets have no worth. The majority of the mine’s users are less forthcoming. Most are, in the words of manager Tom Benjamin, ‘shy,’ though with most of the names here, ‘shy’ is not the first adjective that comes to mind. Amid the 2,500-plus organisations renting space are federal government agencies, film studios, record companies, banks, blue-chip Wall Street institutions and new technology companies. I’m not permitted to mention any specific names, but let’s just say you’ve definitely heard of them.
Ann Hartman drives us along a network of different streets before arriving at a clean white door in the wall with a screen showing some of the images the archive holds. Inside is an office space and a room with a lightbox. Behind that, there’s a much larger and colder vault holding Corbis’s real riches: 27 million of the finest photographs in the world.
Think of a 20th century image of America, and the odds are that Corbis probably hold it. Marilyn on the grating. Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima. The Hindenberg exploding. Sunlight falling through the windows of Grand Central Station. Buzz Aldrin staking out the Stars & Stripes on a windless moon. New York construction workers lunching on a high-rise crossbeam (that one is particularly interesting. Just after staff had scanned the glass plate, someone dropped it. It’s now in five pieces). Einstein sticking his tongue out. Rosa Parks on the bus. Kennedy in Dallas, seconds before he was shot.
Somewhere in these rows of cabinets are presidents, celebrities, Hollywood royalty, soldiers and models, corpses and scientists, affairs and calamities, woodcuts and celluloid, colour and monochrome. There’s a whole section devoted to the work of Lynn Goldsmith, a photographer who in 1997 sold Corbis her collection of candid rock shots. There are news agency archives and paparazzi shots, the biggest stories of the age and the smallest social details. ‘You see so many things, so many famous images,’ says production co-ordinator Sarah Scott, ‘that you almost become desensitised. When you go into the Holocaust folder, there’s only so many times you can look at something and (get that shock). But even if it’s a folder you’ve seen 25 times before, there’s always something new.’
And it’s locked in this great white bunker to stop it all from dying. Back in 1995, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates bought what was then the Bettmann archive. At the time the whole collection was stored in a downtown Manhattan block at ordinary room temperature. But once archivists started going through his new purchase, they realised that many of the original negatives had started to fade or corrupt, victims of something called Vinegar Syndrome. In warm or humid conditions, the acetate base of a negative begins to shrink away from the surface emulsion, buckling the image and releasing a sharp vinegary tang as it degrades. Open one of the worst-affected cabinets here, and it stinks like a fish supper. As Sarah says, ‘You’ll walk past some of the drawers and think, ‘Woooh! I want chips now, I’m hungry!’
Photographic experts realised that the best – the only – way of preserving the remaining images was to freeze them. And so in 2002 Corbis stuck eight million of its images on a fleet of 18 tractor-trailers and drove them non-stop from New York to Pennyslvania. At the moment the whole lot – plus 19 million others – are stored at 7°C, but once they’ve been scanned the vault will be locked down to -4°C, leaving the greatest images of the American century frozen for eternity in Snow-White silence.
On a day-to-day basis, Ann and Sarah’s job is to respond to clients’ requests, pull out relevant material and take the negatives to the digital lab for scanning. So what kind of requests do they get? ‘We’re driven a lot by world events,’ says Anne, ‘So right now it’s a lot of the terrorism that’s just everywhere. Clients may ask for similar things which have happened before – bombings or shootings.’ There are also requests for obituary images. ‘Sometimes I’m coming in in the morning and a celebrity or an historical person has passed away. Corbis typically has something prepared for older people, but if they’re younger, clients want to know if we have something in our files.’
And what’s it like working here, buried down in the Batcave? ‘Once you get down here, you get involved with your phone calls and your emails,’ says Anne, ‘On a summer’s day we do miss the outside, so we go out and take a picnic.’ Staff from other companies do meet each other, and Ann has found out about some of the treasures on offer elsewhere. This, after all, is archivism with attitude, data-storage with a dose of drama. ‘Sometimes I get so excited about what’s here,’ says Ann as she closes up. ‘I look at these images and I think, ‘What a piece of work is Man. What a piece of work. Truly.’