Mining For Pictures

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Senior Editor Carla Davidson knows more than anyone else on the premises about the history of how this magazine finds and uses illustrations. The other day I asked her to tell me about it:

“The founders learned the basic elements of putting together an exciting picture story during their early days at Time, Inc. In addition, Oliver Jensen, Joe Thorndike, and Joan Kerr all had an abiding interest in American imagery. We have always been alert to the private collections and to recent discoveries that make us feel we are really doing research , not simply picking up a picture from another book or grabbing the first available portrait of Abraham Lincoln. We work in depth and we continue to mine American pictorial treasures to ever greater depths.

“To our amazement, there is plenty of gold left. There is always another smalltown photographer’s collection of thirty thousand glass-plate negatives now resting in someone’s attic or in some historical society that hasn’t yet had the time or funding to attend to it. To find such pictures we have woven a great spider web of sources, and we have long memories.

“Another reason, perhaps, for the depth and range of illustrative material in our pages is that, for us, time is not a luxury but a necessity. It is easy enough to call commercial picture agencies and obtain a picture—sometimes the most obvious and familiar of pictures—in a day or two at most. But that is simply not good enough. We will contact such sources as the Nebraska State Historical Society, the Free Library .of Philadelphia, the Amon Carter Museum, and so on. They sometimes move slowly, and we must hold on to our patience and cajole and hope and pray that the picture in question will arrive in time for our printer’s deadline. This process may take six to eight weeks—but we can’t do it any other way.

“There’s a funny story, Byron, I’d like to tell about you. Before you arrived in our offices, we had bulletins from you by phone. One such regarded the story on Tocqueville’s American journey that you were rushing into the June 1982 issue. ‘Telex the historical societies,’ you told me in one call. ‘Ask them to check their files for any pictures or memorabilia of Tocqueville as he passed through their towns.’ I remember my amazement that anyone imagined American Heritage the possessor of a telex, much less that a historical society owned one, much less the response of all those carefully cultivated curatorial sources when asked to dig up something in a hurry!

“We’ve all learned about the process that translates into the pictorial storehouse that is American Heritage.”

And we go on learning.