Photo Corners

A   S C R A P B O O K   O F   S O L U T I O N S   F O R   T H E   P H O T O G R A P H E R

Enhancing the enjoyment of taking pictures with news that matters, features that entertain and images that delight. Published frequently.

Matinee: 'Wilhelm At Iron Mountain' Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

2 July 2016

Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the 142nd in our series of Saturday matinees today: Wilhelm At Iron Mountain.

We made that title up. Two years ago the Carnegie Museum of Art produced a series called The Invisible Photograph of which this video is Part 1 (Underground). Now who would click on that? The title itself is parenthetical!

So we took out our titling toolkit to fix things. We applied star billing to Henry Wilhelm, best known for testing the permanence of varies inks and papers at the Wilhelm Imaging Research, although he isn't the only one who appears in this clip. And we set the scene at a place that might have come from any sci-fi novel.

Who wouldn't want to follow Henry Wilhelm into a cave to look at some of the 11 million historical images of the Bettmann Archive preserved in Corbi's subzero film preservation facility?

Cool indeed.

It's about 17 minutes without a dull moment, starting with the arrival at the first checkpoint and continuing with the spooky submarine soundings as the real title appears. Boyers, Pa., is the location of Iron Mountain, a limestone formation chosen to preserve the collection.

We see a few of the images in the collection lined up on a copy stand before Wilhelm appears carrying his Canon dSLR as he's escorted into the facility.

He helped design the facility, determining the proper temperature and humidity -- maintained by 200 million gallons of 50°F water circulating through the limestone.

'We are probably at the sunset period of the physical print.'

He puts it simply. "The very act of taking a picture is to preserve that moment in time. And the linkage is how long is that moment. And I think we all want it to be as long as possible."

Like two thousand years.

Senior Manager Ann C. Hartman, who is seen copying some images, explains just what the Bettman Archive is, a collection of images as far back as the 19th century that is "wide and deep and really contains anything that someone might be looking for."

[The phone rings.]

Production Control Coordinator Leslie Stauffer answers the trilling landline phone. "Can I call you back?" She hangs up and turns back to us. She digitize orders from the collection. Some of the images, preserved as anything from glass negatives to prints, haven't been seen since they were taken.

Hartman tells us about Bettman's two steamer trunks that started the collection when he emigrated to New York to escape Nazi Germany.

Then we roll up our sleeves and get dirty, going into the cave with Solution Development Executive Tom Benjamin who navigates the place in a golf cart. He shows us how the space was dynamited.

We get a little geological lesson about the old limestone mine Corbis turned into a vault from Marc Wilson and Debra Wilson just to keep this adventure film on the educational upbeat.

Maintaining the science angle, Senior Facility Engineering Consultant Chuck Doughty shows off the cooling system of 50 acres of water, explaining how this geothermal lake provides the equivalent of eight megawatts of cooling.

He worked with Wilhelm to spec the system that will extend the life of the archive for "over two thousand years."

Wilhelm looks over the shipping cartons he followed on the way down. He tells a funny story about pulling to the side of I-80 to take a shot of the semi coming around the bend when a state trooper confronted him.

That introduces a more philosophical turn to the video. The focus is on preserving the original (even if it's a second generation print). "Without the analog," Stauffer says, "we are lost."

Digital Imaging Coordinator Bethany Boarts, who is a photographer herself, goes through the digitization process Corbis devised for preserving a digital copy of those analog originals. Even though Photoshop can enhance the image, she makes an effort to maintain the harsh contrast caused by on-camera flash or the color tones natural to the film of that era. She expects to see a resurgence of film as a hedge against digital failure like a hard disk crash (or, you know, losing your phone).

But not Wilhelm.

"We are probably at the sunset period of the physical print," he says. The smartphone is heralding the era of the all-digital age. "One of the really exciting things is more photographs are being taken by more people than ever before in history by an order of magnitude," he says.

Facebook, he says, is the biggest photo archive in the world. His adult son gives him a peek into this world. "One of the salient features is, that for all practical purposes, photography is now free. It's not only free, but it can be disseminated all around the world instantly to as many people as one cares to disseminate it to also for free. And instantly."

We have the advantage of looking two years into the future from this video. The frailties of the original digital capture residing on a device subject to water damage or mere loss have been addressed by Apple, Adobe and Google with various strategies to backup captures to the cloud.

We won't have to dig Iron Mountain-like vaults in our backyards to show our grandchildren what our lives were like. Nor will we have to make prints of our images.

Wilhelm had seen that among the shadows cast on the limestone walls of the caves dug in Iron Mountain.

BackBack to Photo Corners