Wednesday, February 29, 2012


The front and back of a photograph that ran in The New York Times on Oct. 16, 1970, accompanying a story about a mannequin warehouse sale. The annotated print has lived in The Times's physical photography archive for over 40 years. It was brought back to life on The Lively Morgue on February 27, 2012.

Photographs are timecapsules, are beauty on paper, are storytellers. The fact that people do not generally print them and hold them dear as tangible objects anymore keeps me up at night. How is it that my grandchildren will never know the distinct pleasure of sitting next to me on a couch with a photo album between us, peeling back a thin plastic layer from a thick cardstock page, unsticking a rectangle of glossy paper, and holding it in close view to laugh at what I was wearing and how my hair was longer on one side than the other back then? How will that never happen? I fully embrace the unbridled innovation of my digital present, but no photos? Perhaps this all bothers me more than others because I am an aspiring archivist, but if you are also phobic of a photo-less world, The New York Times has just begun a project that I suspect will help stave off the full-blown panic you may be experiencing. With an aptly named Tumblr The Times is opening up their physical photo archive to a world wide audience. The Lively Morgue is a simple and beautiful project that mines the unfathomable, unknowably large collection of printed photographs and photographic media that by best estimation includes
“five million to six million prints and contact sheets (each sheet, of course, representing many discrete images) and 300,000 sacks of negatives…at least 10 million frames in all…[and] 13,500 DVDs, each storing about 4.7 gigabytes worth of imagery.”
Just how vast is that collection? If the Tumblr feed featured
10 photos every weekday, just from the printed portion of that collection alone, it wouldn’t have the whole thing online until the year 3935! The thing that is stunning is that this is not unique (although admittedly The Times holds a comparatively large collection), there are untold numbers of rooms filled with boxes of photographs and negatives and slides. So much treasure remaining unseen.

The emergence of the paper dress trend! Originally published March 4, 1968.

Enough with the sad news, let's get back to the happy Morgue project. The site will feature a few photographs a week; a selection of timely or just simply breathtaking subject matter. The lovely and amazing part of the project is that the editors have had the foresight to satisfy at least some aspect of the photophile's desire to see a physical object: they have scanned the back of the photographs, presenting each image recto and verso. Thus they retain all of the little handwritten and hand-stamped details that tell the photo's life story. They have even included an annotated key to help you decipher the information scrawled, stamped, or pasted onto the photograph. It is a beautiful moment of analog and digital hybridization. And, as with any photo archive anywhere in existence, it includes fantastic fashion information, from high fashion subject matter to documents of popular dress.

A dress form hollowed out and refilled with liquor bottles at a speakeasy posing as a tailor shop. The photograph originally ran on January 9, 1930.

The Lively Morgue (so named after the nickname bestowed on the storage room itself) is a new project, having just begun two days ago. Bookmark/RSS/Feed it now and watch it come alive.