May 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 3
When we scheduled John Lukacs’s article about Americans in Venice to run in the previous issue, we assumed that it would be the easiest of stories to illustrate: After all, that city has been living on its looks alone for more than two centuries now.
But getting pictures to work with a story is sometimes a mysterious and perplexing process, and when we had laid in the photographs we’d gathered, all of it—the lagoon, those clusters of prettily tilting poles, those melting spires—looked like calendrical boilerplate.
Now what? We talked it over and decided to illustrate the story entirely with photographs of Americans in Venice over the years. That meant going to Bettmann. And as was very often the case with Bettmann, the results were terrific: the young Eleanor Roosevelt on her honeymoon; an equally young Jack Kennedy feeding pigeons in St. Mark’s; and the only picture of Woody Alien and Soon-Yi that we’ve ever had occasion to run.
But there was more. The diligent and ingenious Bettmann researcher Ron Brenne scanned a lot of dim old eye-abrading microfilm files and came up with two views of non-celebrities: a young tourist of some 40 years ago in a polka-dot dress gazing out over the ravishing cliché of the Grand Canal, and an American sailor in uniform, seen from behind, watching a gondolier ply his ancient trade. The tourist was so appealing that we opened the story with her; and the sailor went on the cover.
These photos were available because Dr. Otto Bettmann was a Jew. Born in Leipzig in 1903, Bettmann early began collecting prints and photographs and was working in Berlin as curator of rare books in the Prussian State Art Library when Hitler came to power. Fired because of his religion, he decided to emigrate to America; German customs agents seized his money to satisfy the “leaving the Reich tax” but decided the two trunks full of pictures he had with him were worthless.
Bettmann and his trunks arrived in New York in the morning time of the great era of photojournalism that Life magazine would come to typify. Shortly after, as Robert McFadden wrote in Bettmann’s New York Times obituary, in 1998, the refugee had “founded the renowned Bettmann Archive, a commercial treasure house of pictorial material that percolated into American culture through newspapers, magazines, books and television.” It certainly percolated into the consciousness of our readers, for American Heritage has drawn on those archives since the magazine’s inception, in 1954.
But we won’t anymore, and neither will anybody else. Or at least, we and they will be able to do so only in a meager and straitened way. In 1995, William H. Gates, through his Corbis Corporation, bought the archive, by then buttressed with an additional 11.5 million photographs, many of them from news services like International News Photos and UPI. In all, Gates acquired 16 million images; he “now owns the history of everything,” Bettmann said at the time.
And just as the Venice story went to press, we got word that he’d decided to put the history of everything under lock and key in a keep in Pennsylvania. Corbis will still be offering a sampling of views online. You’ll be able to rent Albert Einstein sticking out his tongue, and Marilyn Monroe above the grating with her skirt aswirl, and any number of other famous images—along with the picture we just ran of JFK in Venice. But the anonymous young woman in her polka-dot dress, and the unknown sailor on our cover, and millions upon millions of other glimpses of the busy, promiscuous clutter of the tremendous and the trivial that make up our past as they do our present—these are gone (along with the enterprising Ron).
Of course, they’re Bill Gates’s pictures, and he can do what he likes with them. But it seems a particular shame that someone who has founded a great commercial empire supplying the torrents of information that are carrying us into the future should fling shut so very many doorways to the past.