The Image in the 21st Century

How digital photo archives have changed the way the world looks.


Photo collage by Slate. Photos by Getty Images and NBC.

In 1989, on his way to becoming the richest man in America, Microsoft founder Bill Gates started another company, Interactive Home Systems, based on a hunch about how people would collect and view images in the computerized homes of tomorrow. Gates went on to build his dream home in accord with this vision, as he detailed in his 1995 autobiography The Road Ahead:

Recessed into the east wall will be 24 video monitors, each with a 40-inch picture tube, stacked four high and six across. These monitors will work cooperatively to display large images for artistic, entertainment, or business purposes …

I will be the first home user for one of the most unusual electronic features in my house. The product is a database of more than a million still images, including photographs and reproductions of paintings. If you’re a guest, you’ll be able to call up portraits of presidents, pictures of sunsets, airplanes, skiing in the Andes, a rare French stamp, the Beatles in 1965, or reproductions of High Renaissance paintings, on screens throughout the house …

A decade from now, access to the millions of images and all the other entertainment opportunities I’ve described will be available in many homes and will certainly be more impressive than those I’ll have when I move into my house in late 1996.

Gates’ vision of how we’d consume digital images in, say, 2014 was off the mark. Unable to foresee the vast nonphysical expanse of the Internet, he imagined monitors simply replacing the predigital venues, like wall hangings and billboards, where 20th-century Americans most often encountered images. Even a digital proselytizer like Gates could not have anticipated our current reality, where the average American spends nearly 10 hours a day peering into screens—up two hours in just the last three years, with smartphones and tablets becoming increasingly grafted to our hands. 

Bill contemplates his hand.
Bill contemplates his hand.

Photo by Michelle Crosera/AFP/Getty Images

That’s not to say that Gates’ archive, which has since changed its name to Corbis Images, was a bad investment. Quite the opposite. In 2012, Getty Images, a major competitor of Corbis, was sold to the Carlyle Group for $3.3 billion. Gates still owns Corbis privately. Any time you see the iconic photos of Marilyn Monroe with her skirt blown up and Einstein sticking his tongue out, he gets paid.

While Monroe and Einstein are archival subjects, many of Corbis’ best customers are newspapers and magazines, which purchase images to illustrate present-day stories. Corbis is now one of a “big four” of digital image archives that provide the journalism industry with the majority of its visual content. The demand for such images continues to grow as our culture becomes more screen-oriented; Corbis, Getty, the Associated Press, and Reuters control the premium-end supply. (Slate uses images from all four.)

In her seminal On Photography, Susan Sontag wrote, “To collect photographs is to collect the world.” In an era when we experience the world through images on screens, and in an intellectual property regime where billionaires like Gates control the rights to so many of those images, Sontag’s observation takes on a new, sinister tone. Should we celebrate the digital efficiency that makes Corbis’ 100-million-plus images the visual backdrop of our daily lives, or should we be wary? What does the rise of the mega-archives mean for our culture and, more specifically, the way we see the world through the news?

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From cave paintings to religious frescos to the hyperlinked photos on the front page of Slate, human beings have always relied on images to learn about the world. Academics and theorists have a term for the ever-changing practices, customs, and economies that spring up around this traffic in images: visual culture. Consider this quick recap of visual cultural history from the Neolithic to the Renaissance by John Berger, a pioneer of the field: 

Images were first made to conjure up the appearance of something that was absent. Gradually it became evident that an image could outlast what it represented; it then showed how something or somebody had once looked—and thus by implication how the subject had once been seen by other people. Later still the specific vision of the image-maker was also recognized as part of the record. An image became a record of how X had seen Y.

Walter Benjamin has famously written of the ways in which photography transformed visual culture in the 19th and early 20th centuries, destroying the “aura” of the original work of art and laying the groundwork for the sort of distracted mass-consumption of images that we see with movies, TV, and, more recently, the Internet. No era in history, however, has seen such a swift and decisive overhaul of visual culture as the 25 years since Gates founded the company that would become Corbis.

An archival photo of a satire of the famous March of Progress illustration of human evolution.
An archival photo of a satire of the famous “March of Progress” illustration of human evolution.

Photo by David Hecker/AFP/Getty Images

We now spend more than half our waking lives looking at digital displays. The online image, the thing that makes us want to click or share—or have one of the older kinds of emotions, empathy or outrage or anything in between—has become a significant unit of contemporary life, perhaps analogous to the more venerable “moment” of lived experience that’s stored in human, rather than computer, memory. The picture of a friend, or of oneself, at a beach or in a wedding. The map that tells us where the bombs fell, or which towns were washed away in a storm halfway around the world. The president, smiling. The president, frowning. The faces of celebrities, playing out archetypal narratives of love and betrayal, ascendance and punishment. Stills or snippets from movies and TV shows, from Pride and Prejudice to Parks and Recreation, reminding us of a joke we once found funny or an idea we once found persuasive.

True, these same sorts of hieroglyphs played out across the covers and front pages of the 20th-century newsstand. But now, thanks to the efficiency of the archives and the speed of our always-on Web connections, we bombard ourselves with thousands of them every day. We sift through them, curiously and compulsively, archivists of ourselves and of the world.

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The early history of image archives is indistinguishable from that of libraries and art collections. As lithography and photography made the reproduction of images easier and fed into the rise of visual journalism, archives evolved closer to their present form. By the late 20th century, in addition to contracting with photojournalists and illustrators for original work, a typical publication maintained its own internal archive of images, those that had run in its pages and ones purchased from outside, for-profit archives.

In those days, a magazine or newspaper’s photo editor might call an archive—the Bettmann Archive, for one—and ask for a photograph of Princess Diana or Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. A Bettmann photo researcher would dig into the archive, find one or more options, and mail or message them to the editor’s office. This process might be repeated until the editor was satisfied.

A stock photo from Getty originally intended for use in an article about unemployment and job-seeking websites.

Photo illustration by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

The digital era has condensed that process. Gates’ first coup with Corbis was his 1995 purchase of Bettmann, long a vital resource for New York photo editors. Now photo editors (and, increasingly, article editors and writers) can do this manner of research themselves, sifting through the hundreds of millions of images in, say, Getty’s fee- and subscription-based archives. (Slate is a Getty subscriber.) To a time-traveling photo editor freshly arrived from the early 1990s, we might describe this research process as “virtual,” but today we hardly register it as simulacrum. In the 1990s, we looked at prints to decide what to print. Now we look at digital images to decide what to publish digitally. If something fundamental has changed, we don’t yet have a word to isolate it, though we recognize the pattern everywhere in contemporary life: We have traded an element of human interaction and individual expertise for speed and consolidation in an ever more comprehensive system of indexing.

The Internet itself can be understood as an archive, a vast set of information packets and the links among them. If we consider the subset of image files on the Internet as an archive unto itself, it is by far the largest visual collection in the history of mankind. While there is no way to accurately count the total number of photos available online, in 2012 photographer Bob Davies estimated that there were 350 billion. A trillion certainly seems possible by now.

Google Images, which does not control or sell copyright, provides something akin to a comprehensive popular archive of digital images. You don’t have to be Bill Gates in a mansion with a wall of monitors to “collect the world.” You can simply repost whatever images you like in your personal Tumblr or Pinterest archives. You can also sort through vast troves of private and semiprivate photos on Flickr, Instagram, Facebook, and newer social photo apps. Some of these social media sites have become significant sources of editorial images. Flickr, for instance, has long allowed users to license their own photos for commercial and editorial use. The process of obtaining rights to Twitter images and Instagram posts is less streamlined, but it’s still common for photo editors to track down photos through those platforms. For an ordinary Internet user, of course, copying and pasting a digital image is an operation so basic that it can be done with the click of a mouse or the swipe of a finger on a touch screen.

In this Wild West of online visual culture, mega-archives like Corbis and Getty play the roles of both land baron and sheriff. They acquire new photos and new image libraries almost at the same rate that the Internet itself expands. They maintain an edge on image-oriented social media sites by ensuring that their search tools are better and that their systems of obtaining rights are easier for law-abiding customers to navigate, as well as by developing in-house operations that buy up the rights to amateur photos for as little as a dollar.

They also use the legal system to protect their stock. “Our legal department is a revenue generator for Corbis,” CEO Gary Shenk has said. “We don’t have a lot of lawsuits. We just find infringement and then we turn them into customers.” Translation: With some combination of human and digital eyeballs, companies like Corbis and Getty trawl the Web for images that they hold copyright to, then send out cease-and-desist letters (or, more sneakily, demand letters) with a price tag attached. Pay up, and your problem goes away. 

A RQ-170 Sentinel drone flies over Nevada.
A RQ-170 Sentinel drone flies over Nevada.

Photo courtesy of Trevor Paglen

The targets of such letters are less often newspapers and magazines, which tend to know the score, than bloggers or small online businesses—adherents, often by instinct more than careful thought, to the digital-era ethic that “information wants to be free.” This argument appears specious on its face, and probably is in other contexts of digital piracy, but some leading theorists of visual culture find reason to defend it. French philosopher Paul Virilio has argued for a third fundamental dimension of existence in the digital age, after space (the body) and time (memory)—that of representation in image, or, more broadly, on the “pathway of light” of visual media. Along the same lines, University of Chicago professor W.J.T. Mitchell has suggested that images ought to be considered living things. If our only experience of, say, a recently extinct songbird or an overseas American war crime is through its digital image, can it possibly be ethical for such an image to be owned and controlled by Gates or the Carlyle Group? If not, and certain images do deserve a kind of self-determination, how far does this principle extend?

This March, perhaps in recognition of this heady line of reasoning (but more likely because it couldn’t stem the tide of online piracy), Getty became the first of the big four archives to offer many of its photos free for noncommercial use on Twitter, Tumblr, and personal blogs.

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As with so many Internet-era “disruptions” of creative industries, the big losers in the new regime of editorial images are the content creators, especially photographers. Squeezed on the one side by amateurs with increasingly sophisticated camera phones and on the other by ever-expanding archives of professional photos permanently available on the cheap, photojournalists are having a harder and harder time getting by. Dan Chung, a photojournalist who made waves by covering the 2012 London Olympics for the Guardian on an iPhone, has said, “I don’t really see a future in photojournalism, if I’m completely honest, as a way to earn a living.”

Whereas two decades ago every major magazine and newspaper might have kept one photographer in Washington, another in Paris, another in a conflict zone, and so on, digital image archives mean such positions are no longer necessary. Editors have too many good options from image archives and social media to bother with expensive staff salaries and retainers. As with so many other digital-era services, photographs are now effectively crowdsourced instead of delivered by an expert. 

Photo of a South African girl taken by a freelance photographer after the hard-to-illustrate news broke of the kidnapping of schoolgirls in remote northern Nigeria. Later used by New York Times.

Photo by Rajesh Jantilal/Getty Images

Photographers can’t afford to see the mega-archives as enemies, however. For one thing, the archives are far more capable than individual content creators of contesting copyright infringement. And, if only because of shrinking photo budgets at newspapers and magazines, photojournalists now often find themselves selling directly to archives. It’s not exactly accurate to call this practice “shooting for stock”—that phrase is usually reserved for the realm of advertising images—but it’s not far off. The idea is to create images versatile enough to be used in a variety of news contexts.

The above-mentioned icon of the president smiling or frowning is an obvious example. With stock photography, we are no longer operating on the principle of, as Berger put it, “how X saw Y.” Instead, we’re looking through the eyes of the archive, at an image optimized for repurposing or linking between different ideas and narratives. 

This microstock model feels optimistic about the future of professional photography!

This microstock model feels optimistic about the future of professional photography!

Photo by JGI/Tom Grill

This system reaches its apotheosis in so-called “microstock”—“micro” not in the sense of image size, but in terms of cost to users and payment to content creators. Microstock agencies (often owned by firms like Getty) tend to source their photos from the Internet, including amateurs and hobbyists, paying as little as a dollar per image and selling the photographs royalty-free for pennies. As stock photo researcher Rolf Sjogren put it in his history of “shooting for stock” for Dis magazine, “Some of these images achieved that differentiated look almost the same way an army of monkeys at typewriters might eventually write the Magna Carta.”

In a system where microstock is king, professional photographers have been forced out of the picture. Everyone is an image-maker and an image-consumer. As social media continues to bend the Internet toward a more personalized user experience, this trend will likely continue. Someday, we may be surprised (but not too surprised) to find our own picture of a beautiful skyline sunset illustrating a news story about pollution or the decline of the city we live in, or our own baby pictures serving as the click-bait for “10 Tips New Parents Can’t Afford to Miss.”

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The rise of digital image archives has transformed visual journalism, remaking our expectations for and experience of the news. However, it’s still quite common for today’s news consumer to come across images that are not sourced from archives.

To begin with, there’s an upper class of magazines and newspapers that still regularly pays professional photographers directly for one-off shoots or news coverage. This class of publications is contracting, but it seems unlikely to shrink to nothing. Just as panel painting survived the age of mechanical reproduction and continues to the present day, older forms of editorial illustration, including not just photojournalism but also cartoons and drawings, persist in the digital era.

At this point, it’s worth noting that the article you’re reading is the third in a series of illustrated essays for Slate about the future of major cultural touchstones of the predigital age. The first two concerned the future of the printed book and the future of libraries. If there’s a thesis linking the three essays, it goes like this: As these once vital institutions and practices are undermined and replaced by new digital modes, a certain prestige remains in doing things the older, slower way. Call it the Artisanal Pickles Theory of cultural change. Partly because luxury loves exclusivity, but also for some other very good reasons—i.e., predigital forms of attention and inquiry might make us more empathetic and smarter—the elites of the digital age are learning to segregate themselves from the masses based in part on their fluency in predigital modes of communication and information architecture. 

Illustration by Gustavo Duarte.
An illustration from the Slate review of a W.G. Sebald essay collection. The drawings Slate runs tend to illustrate book reviews or personal essays. Sebald, ironically, liked to illustrate his essays with old photos.

Illustration by Gustavo Duarte

So magazines and newspapers that persist in publishing old-fashioned print editions are much more likely to employ their own photographers. The case of drawings is even more extreme. Readers are now likely to come across drawn illustrations only in upper-crust publications like the New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times Book Review. There seems to be a correlation between a publication’s interest in literature and its use of drawings—perhaps an indication of the image archive era’s inability to incorporate certain elements of the predigital attention span and imagination. Literature, in the lofty, exclusive sense of the word, has always traded in ambiguous, finely shaded mental images. These cannot be instantaneously shared, but rather have to be built up in one’s own mind, at the cost of some meaningful intellectual effort or imaginative leap. Such images simply do not compute in the era of the archive.

The “War and Peace” of data visualizations, by Charles Joseph Minard, 1869.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, we see the dawn of a new form of illustration for the digital era: the data visualization. If traditional photojournalism operates on the subjective principle of “how X saw Y” and archive image illustration works like an algebraic equation where a photo editor must solve for “X” by identifying the appropriate photo from a set, data visualizations resemble a calculus that integrates across various archival data sets, from political polling results to sports statistics to the vast quantities of metadata thrown off by the Internet every day.

Some stories feel too big in scope to fit within the human field of vision, let alone the frame of a photograph. Today, climate change is one. Our changing relationship to technology is another. In past eras, perhaps, such subjects were tackled more in the domain of essays and literature—the mental image—than reportorial journalism. Now, data visualizations find ways for us to envision these subjects as a computer might see them (if computers had mental images), as data brought to life, and to light, in an interactive picture.

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In 1988, around the same time Gates was laying the groundwork for the company that would become Corbis, Paul Virilio (mentioned above in relation to his theory of persistence in image as a third fundamental plane of existence alongside those of space and time) predicted that the growing preponderance of photography, surveillance, and computer technology would eventually culminate in “vision machines”—a complete circuit of digital sight, image analysis, and recontextualization in which human eyes and minds are no longer necessary.

It’s hard to say at this stage if Virilio’s version of the future is any more accurate than Gates’. The systems that take pictures of drivers’ license plates and issue traffic violations are an early, contemporary example of vision machines. Perhaps image archives, too, are a step on a path to a more total system of this sort—a comprehensive visual index of the world as it unfolds, tagged and indexed according to content and available meanings, as intelligible to a computer as it is to a human eye.

There is a word for this kind of vision: surveillance. More and more, surveillance seems like the operative form of visual attention in the digital age, for humans as well as machines. We click on images compulsively, because we want to see more images. Eventually, we fantasize of seeing and knowing all there is to see and know about the world, but from a certain remove—from hiding, behind a screen.

The Pit Scene from Lascaux Cave. Print used in Trevor Paglen’s Last Pictures project.
The pit scene from Lascaux Cave. Print used in Trevor Paglen’s Last Pictures project.

Photo courtesy Trevor Paglen

In 2012, artist and photographer Trevor Paglen, who became famous for taking pictures of drones and other symbols of the surveillance state, launched an image archive of his own called the Last Pictures. The word launched is not used here in the recent Silicon Valley sense, but with the older, projectile definition. Paglen’s archive was attached to a surveillance satellite, loaded on a rocket, and sent into geosynchronous orbit—an altitude from which satellites never plummet back to Earth, or take so many billions of years to fall that they can be thought of as new fixtures of the solar system. The ring of top-secret vision machines that humans have been launching into this orbit over the past few decades will likely outlast any of our other works on Earth—including the reinforced underground cavern in Pennsylvania where Corbis stores its originals and negatives.

Paglen’s collection, featuring 100 images from throughout human history etched in ultra-archival silicon, is intended to explain these image-gathering satellites to whatever intelligence, organic or machine, may stumble across them in the distant future. It’s also in keeping with the 21st-century instinct to build and curate photo archives of ourselves for public consumption as reality seems to migrate online. Paglen’s curated images—ancient cave paintings, a 19th-century viewing gallery for surgeries, a missile launch, an exhibit of giant screens propagandizing American daily life at the 1959 Moscow World’s Fair—create a record not so much of how any one individual saw a specific subject, but of how we as a species learned to see the world through our tools and machines, and of how we then taught those machines themselves to see.