The Largest Photo Archive in the World

Getty Images is well known, with Corbis, as one of the dominant commercial picture libraries. Most people would encounter it through its website but behind the website is a physical archive in North London. I went to meet their curator Sarah McDonald to find out about the collection. Before I went I had been told (by Stephen Mayes who previously worked there) that the archive resembles the closing scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark with rows of shelving holding innumerable boxes, more than you could possibly look through. This turns out to be true.

The outside of the building is unprepossessing, a drab brick facade down a side street but behind it is a warehouse divided in two, one half of which contains prints and the other half negatives. McDonald says they have between 30 and 60 million prints and that it is the largest photographic archive in the world. Her vagueness about the number of images they hold is a measure of its vast scale – it's too big to count – rather than their general orderliness, it all looks well organised, the negative half of the warehouse is noticeably cooler for conservation reasons.

The entire collection represents an accumulation of historical collections from the London Stereoscopic Company to the Daily Express archive, and it's still growing. These individual collections are themselves so large that they each maintain their original organisation and catalogues; there is too much material to impose a new structure on them. A researcher looking for a picture in the Evening Standard collection will be using the catalogue originally devised when it was a part of that newspaper.

The negative collection contains images that may never have been seen or even unpacked from their wrappers, and this includes images made in the 19th century. The Hulton archive (that was the basis of the collection) included Picture Post. McDonald showed me a daybook that records the different picture stories shot by Picture Post photographers during a week. On facing pages are the stories that were published and the ‘killed’ stories that were never used and may never have been printed. They are in the business of finding new uses for old pictures, a nice example of this being the sudden attraction of stereoscopic photographs to 3D TV and film makers. If you can keep everything then eventually someone might come along with a need for even your most obscure pictures.

Sound edit by Stuart Watson.

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