Getty Archive

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Visiting the Getty archive is by appointment only.

The Getty archive is said to be the biggest photographic archive in the world of over 30 million photographs in its possession. Sarah McDonald is the curator of the archive and I listened to her interview with Source Magazine as part of their series on photographic archives. The Getty archive library has been collecting since the late 1940s from different publications from the UK and overseas. Sections are classified as one would expect; however, Getty have an umbrella called ‘modern’. Apparently ‘modern’ photography is post 1920 when small cameras changed photojournalism and glass plate was less commonly used. Within this section it is split between the different publications and then categories such as sport.

The Getty Archive although focuses on photography, also houses illustrative works and music, which makes the archive rich in cultural content. However, as the archive has been growing rapidly since its establishment, the classification of some records are now outdated: McDonald discusses how in the topographics section, some towns are filed under different counties to what they are now. It would be a big, expensive effort to update these records and thus, it is down to the researchers at the archive to point visiting researchers in the right direction and offer historical context.

Less than 1% of the Getty Archive is digitised and researchers can only visit by appointment only. This naturally means that the archive is not open publicly. Sarah McDonald highlights the point of the archive is commercial with the intent to sell works. It strikes me that with over 30 million prints, there must be uncountable amounts of prints which aren’t known to the public for purchase.

In the temperature and humidity regulated warehouses, there are over 5 miles of shelving for the glass negatives on the first floor alone. There are millions of other negatives which have to be protected. Nitrate film is now housed by the British Film Institute for insurance reasons.

“we need to keep up to date to sell it”

McDonald expresses the need to keep their business model successful and current. She later talks about extended their audiences to abroad such as Europe, China and Brazil. However, I would argue that trying to capture the interest of remote audiences, their online presence needs to be bigger. Needless to say however, that their current digital platform is very easy to navigate. Although much of it is digital work and not so much from the physical archive. McDonald discusses the issues with digitisation such as the cost and timescale which of course is a reoccuring problem. However, a point she makes I would like to draw on is as follows:

however brilliant an image is, if you can’t find it because it is missing a keyword, then it’s no use


This raises the point that if an archive image can’t be found, what’s the point of spending money to digitise it? It also means that keywording is integral and that curators are responsible for this findability.

The Largest Archive in the World, 2013, Available online: Last Accessed February 2014

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