On Sale, or the Johnson Publishing Company Photo Archive, Revisited

An old post that people keep reading is the one on the Johnson Publishing Company (JPC)’s photo archive sale. At least one person a day reads my reaction to the off-loading of the “African-American Getty”, so it’s safe to say that people are still interested in the matter. Granted, I haven’t made any inquiries but I’ve looked around online to see if something, anything, was written or said about the sale, or if JPC had responded to the outrage. Little has been written since the sale was reported in January, except in blog posts and on Twitter.

Awesomely Luvvie, an African-American impassioned about the archive and it’s role in African-American history, had a great post on the sale, expressing anger and shock that such a low price, $40 million USD, would be put on the photographs. She wrote: “Who appraised this collection? Why are they a hater? And why do I feel like this price is basically a dropkick to our legacy? It’s like a clearance sale on our history and I am side-eying everyone involved. This is a literal de-valuing of our history.” Literal devaluing is an accurate description. $40 million for the whole is basically $8 a photograph. In my post on the sale, I based a higher estimate, $58.6 million, on a third of what Art.com charges ($35 on the low end) for the collection of 2,000 images licensed  from the JPC photo archive. One would think the outright sale of the collection would be priced a bit higher than the cost of buying everything off a poster site.

Luvvie implored, “Can our images not go to the highest bidder, but to an entity that will honor them?” This. This. Cultural collections should be in the hands of organizations that understand, appreciate, and, yes, honor, them. Selling a collection with enormous cultural importance to an individual or corporation without a connection or vested interest in the creators or content of the collection is just…. wrong. It is something an archivist, an actual trained and educated archivist, cannot abide.

Very little details were given about the sale, save for the going price and that among the “archival experts” guiding the offer is Mark Lubell, of the International Center of Photography, in New York. Lubell is identified as an archival expert, but his LinkedIn profile indicates no archival education, training, or experience. Further information on Lubell’s expertise comes from a USA Today article from 2006 detailing his revamping of the Magnum Photo agency: “… the young, albeit savvy, businessman” was not a photographer but someone who “…helped take a company public after graduating from Syracuse University, and he later worked for a dot-com near ground zero that closed after Sept. 11.” Then he fell into a position at a gallery exhibiting post- 9/11 photography. In essence, he’s a businessman who, by way of happenstance, became an art dealer and administrator specializing in photography.

In 2010, Lubell brokered a deal that put the Magnum archive (but not the copyright and licensing rights) into the hands of MSD Capital LP, an investment firm that exclusively managed Dell Computers founder Michael Dell’s wealth. The price of the sale wasn’t noted, but Bloomberg put the archive’s value at over $100 million. The photos were lent for five years to the Harry Ransom Center, a massive research library at the University of Texas-Austin, Dell’s alma mater. The Ransom Center is dedicated to scholarship and has a strong photography collection, giving the Magnum collection a comfortable home. In 2013, the photos were donated outright to the Center.

A deal was brokered that allowed a cash-strapped firm to free storage space, make some cash, and gave an incredibly rich man the joy of buying something expansive (and expensive) that no one else had; the rich guy eventually put the collection into the hands of a university that will respect it’s role as an educational and informational tool. Good. No joke, no side-eye; it all worked out in the end and that’s a good thing. “Through this arrangement,” Lubell was quoted in a Ransom Center press release, “we are able to acknowledge, celebrate and preserve Magnum’s historic past…”

It would be a boon to the Johnson Publishing Company photo archive, as well as to students, scholars, writers and the African-American community as a whole if Mark Lubell is able to make a similar deal involving one of the historically black colleges and universities. Where ever it lands and however long it takes to get there, I hope the collection remains intact and will be in the custody of an organization that, to paraphrase Mr. Lubell, will acknowledge, celebrate, preserve, and most of all, provide access to the photos that illuminate the African-American community’s historic past.


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