On a summer afternoon in 1950, Life magazine photographer Edward Clark spent some time outdoors with a then-unknown starlet, snapping dozens of pictures of 24-year-old Marilyn Monroe as she walked along a tree-lined path, lounged on a park bench reading a book, posed alongside a stream and peered wistfully over the rail of a bridge. Few, if any, of those photographs have ever been seen by the public.
Under contract to Life and Google, a Frederick-based imaging company has spent two years scanning those rare images, along with a few million others from the magazine archives. All told, some 20 technicians, working as a team about 16 hours a day, have scanned nearly 6 million images. Google has put about 2 million online: pictures of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preparing for the March on Washington, of Clark Gable at his home, of atomic bomb tests on Bikini atoll in the South Pacific, of Madame Curie in her lab and Louis Armstrong on his trumpet.
"It's some neat stuff," says Pat Crowley, vice president of the Crowley Company, builders, distributors and operators of sophisticated scanning technology. "I had some historical perspective on the photographs. I'm 41 years old, and I certainly knew what Life magazine was. ... But we tried to treat it like any other project."
Of course, for anyone with any sense of history, or photography, or celebrity, or mass media, this is far more than just "any project."
From 1936 to 1972, and again from 1978 to 2000, Life defined photojournalism, taking its readers to important events throughout the globe, acquainting them with the rich and famous, showcasing the work of such masters as Alfred Eisenstadt, Robert Capa, Margaret Bourke-White, Gordon Parks and David Douglas Duncan.
Some of the photographs, which can be accessed by going to the Images section of google.com and clicking on the Life Photo Archive button, may look familiar, such as a Paul Schutzer photograph of John and Jacqueline Kennedy leaving their Georgetown residence on the morning of the president-elect's inauguration in 1961. But while only that one photograph may have actually appeared in the magazine, dozens of others Schutzer shot at the same time are now available.
"About 90 percent of this collection was never seen by the public," says Andrew Blau, president of Life. "The number of photographs we've actually published is very small, compared to what we have in the archives."
The photos are available for purchase, at prices from $79.99 to $109.99; they can also be printed directly off your computer, though not at the same quality. But this archive is not simply a moneymaking venture, Blau says.
It's also meant to drum up interest in life.com, an Internet venture between Life and Getty Images, scheduled to launch in February. The site will feature not only archive photos, but also up to 3,000 new images a day.
"It will predominantly be a contemporary photo site," Blau says.
For Crowley and his company, however, the focus is definitely on the past. The association with Life began about three years ago, when a third party brought the two firms together. Finding that Crowley had plenty of experience in archiving records - its clients have included the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Holocaust Museum and the Library of Virginia - Life contracted with the firm to scan about 10.5 million images.
"This is clearly our most high-profile project," says Pat Crowley, who now helps run the company that was founded in 1980 by his late father, Jerome. "Every day, you see something new and interesting."
The images (mostly negatives stored in envelopes, but including some paper prints as well) were stored in file cabinets, sitting in warehouses scattered throughout northern New Jersey and New York, Pat Crowley says. Representatives from Crowley go to the warehouses and load the images, file cabinets and all, onto trucks for the trip to Frederick. The trucks are climate-controlled to prevent any deterioration of the images.
At the end of each trip, the cabinets are unloaded into the firm's 20,000-square-foot warehouse on the outskirts of Frederick. There, bar codes that had previously been placed on each envelope, part of an earlier cataloging, are scanned to ensure the contents match Life's records.
From there, the negatives are taken into a room for scanning, at the rate of about one every 30 seconds (about 14,000 a day), and loading into the computer. Because of the huge number of images involved, technicians only look to ensure the negatives are loaded into the scanner emulsion-side down. They don't worry about whether the images are upside-down or not.
That's left to the quality-control people, who view the scans on a computer, make sure they are aligned properly, attach an electronic watermark to prevent illegal duplication and type in whatever information is necessary - usually the subject, the photographer and when the picture was taken.
"I have just about seen it all," says Jessica Creasey, one of two women working quality-control one afternoon last week. While plenty of images of famous people have passed under her watchful eye, she notes, the most memorable images she's seen so far were some two-headed dogs. "That has to be it," she says, not having to think about it twice.
Standing amid the 25 file cabinets now stored in the Crowley warehouse, filled with negatives awaiting scanning, the sense of being a kid in a mass-media sandbox is almost overwhelming. Pulled at random from one drawer are a series of images, from 1946, of boxing great Joe Louis before the New York Boxing Commission. Another envelope is labeled "Winchester Apple Blossom Festival, May 1946."
A third envelope, labeled "Donna Reed in Saratoga, Calif.," contains several dozen negative strips, with two pictures per negative. Check out the Life pictures already available through Google, and there are two pictures posted from the June 1946 photo shoot, one of the actress hiking up her skirt as she wades across a stream, the other of her sitting pensively.
Those photos, which actually ran in an issue of Life, are among some 50,000-plus images that had been put online before Crowley became involved. Once the additional images are made available, researchers, fans and the just-plain-curious will be able to view that day's entire photo shoot.
"It is truly a treasure," says Blau, "that is finally being opened up to the public."