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May 15, 2009

PAN Special Report: The Sygma Preservation and Access Facility

PhotoArchiveNews.com was invited to the opening of The Sygma Preservation and Access Facility in Paris yesterday. Here, our new reporter, John Balean, tours the facility and speaks with Gary Shenk about the future of Corbis and the industry as a whole.

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Gary Shenk - speaking at the opening presentation

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All tour photos: John Balean

"The most sophisticated photographic preservation facility in the world" (Henry Wilhelm, Wilhelm Imaging Research)
By John Balean – PhotoArchiveNews

The opening of Corbis/Sygma Preservation and Access Facility, Garnay, France – 14 May 2009

Whilst travelling the one hour bus journey from the centre of Paris to the new facility in Garnay I held great expectations, was this to be the Iron Mountain of Europe? complete with the treasures from one of the finest collections in France. The brief outlined that the Sygma collection would be housed in the optimum conditions that would preserve it for future generations, while ensuring it is widely available and accessible to the creative community, historians, photographers and others interested in the collection.

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We arrived to a presentation lunch including Corbis’ CEO Gary Shenk who officially opened the purpose built facility which now houses the Sygma collection. It culminates a five year plan which included contacting 10,000 contributing photographers, returning content to photographers who did not continue their contracts, the delicate moving of the remaining majority of the collection from its previous Paris home to Garnay, organising the collection, editing, and digitising an additional 80,000 images of the collection.

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It was clear from the passionate presentations given by the Corbis team, Pierre Fonlupt, President of Locarchives, and Henry Wilhelm, Wilhelm Imaging Research that this project was a moment of great pride. Gary Shenk, Corbis CEO, was clear to outline that this initiative was an ongoing commitment to preserve a unique photographic history for centuries to come. Henry Wilhelm, a key figure in the design of the facility, emphasised the importance of creating such a facility by stating that if the Sygma collection remained in Paris then it would have been completely destroyed in a matter of decades. This is not because of the vinegar syndrome that was so prevalent in the UPI Bettmann collection but more because of the volume of unstable colour stock that many of the Sygma photographers used (as all photographers did at the time).

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Red Dot = Editors choice for scanning

With much criticism over the access to the Bettmann UPI archive after its move under the Iron Mountain, the Q&A session focused several times on the question of access to the Sygma archives. The Corbis team were keen to stress that the Sygma archive was an accessible archive and was designed to be intensively used. It was not however going to be an open access library to allow public and researchers to wander in and out, but its close proximity to Paris allowed a direct relationship and transport shuttle to the Corbis France office to meet researchers needs.

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Henry Wilhelm

For the general scanning there is a three to four month cycle from the time an image is edited to the time it is online. Six editors are employed to examine the 50 million negatives, prints, colour transparencies, and contact prints in order to unearth the known and hidden treasures that it contains. This effort is resulting in 12,000-15,000 digitised images per year. This newly digitised content will continually stream online after it is keyworded in Paris. So far 800,000 images of the Sygma collection have be scanned but Sygma was an early leader in the scanning of images, starting in 1993, this unfortunately means that many early scans are low quality and therefore will have to be re-digitised. With 49 million still unscanned it is obvious that digitisation was never a solution to saving such a large archive and in fact Henry Wilhelm went further to stress the importance of saving the original document for future generations rather than a scanned copy.

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We were given a tour of the archives. It is not an amazing structure to look at, on one floor with a stark warehouse feel, but it is undoubtedly precise in its functional design. One area is stored at 18 degrees Celsius, this allows transfer of images without a large shift in temperature which would result in instant degradation. We were also shown around a second section which was held at 3 degrees Celsius, eventually the temperature will be reduced to -20 degrees Celsius, a level of optimum stability. A reduction in temperature from there is not significant enough to be thought as necessary both in terms of financial cost and the cost to the environment in energy waste. All areas are kept at 40% relative humidity.

After the presentation I managed to enter discussions with Gary Shenk to ask him some general questions about the industry. He remarked that Corbis is looking at where the market will be in 2012 and said one strategy that Corbis is employing to counterbalance the microstock and free image sources is to have ".. a great product that cannot be reproduced by any amateur", in this comment he was not just referring to the archive images, such as those in the Sygma Facility, but also with contemporary creative and cutting edge content. He also mentioned the importance of other media diversity such as video (Corbis Motion) and its Rights Clearance Service both of which are showing significant growth. I asked him if he saw any threats now that Getty had consumed Jupiterimages. He admitted he had great respect for Getty and that since Jupiter has disappeared from the scene it has left a big gap for the rest of the pack but the rules of the market are frantically changing and that creates breakaway opportunities. He is not concerned about the agencies that are known in the market but more about the unnamed individual who is just about to erupt on the scene. To illustrate these unknown factors he mentioned the dramatic rise of Facebook as the biggest holder of images on the internet.

With the mine in Pennsylvania and now this new facility in Garnay there is now not a single analogue hardcopy image that is not protected for centuries.
When asked the cost of the facility Stefan Biberfeld, Corbis simply replied "Several million dollars", that cost is ongoing and unlike Bettmann the majority of the content in the Sygma collection is owned by photographers so there is going to be a long wait before Corbis gets its thirteenth slice of the cake. Whatever the future holds it is clear that Bill Gates’ Corbis will leave a photographic legacy for many generations to come.

If you wish to access the archive you should contact [email protected].

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photos: corbis/sygma

Posted by Will Carleton
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