Scanning the century

Photography special - Bill Gates plans to deep-freeze the Bettmann Archive 200 feet below ground. Bu

The latest venture by the Microsoft chairman, Bill Gates, brings to mind one of Plato's greatest bequests to his fellow human beings. Classical scholars will recall that the author of The Republic saw man as an anxious cave-dweller, mistaking the dancing shadows on his walls for reality. Thanks to Gates, a trove of empirical data, in the form of a unique photographic library, is to be sealed up in a cave, while those of us who timorously walk the earth's surface will have to make do with digital reproductions of plates from the collection - with ghostly, flickering simulacra. The vision of the philosopher has been flipped through 180 degrees, like a negative on a PC.

In the thrumming labyrinth of the Iron Mountain/National Underground Storage facility in Pennsylvania, workers are readying a vault to accommodate as many as 17 million photographs. These make up the Bettmann Archive. In 1935, the collection amounted to no more than two steamer trunks of snaps smuggled out of Nazi Germany by a man named Otto Bettmann. But, before anyone knew it, the archive had incorporated the United Press International collection, consisting of news pictures from the Daily News, Chicago Tribune, Scripps and the many Hearst titles.The Bettmann has become what the New York Times describes as "a visual history of the 20th century". Its gems include Einstein sticking his tongue out - a shot which says everything that pop art did, but in a single frame - as well as Orson Welles at the mike during the hysterical radio recording of The War of the Worlds.

The Bettmann is in effect the back catalogue of the Depression, of two world wars and Vietnam. It is also the place to go for stills of Jack and Bobby, Elvis and Marilyn. That is to say, it used to be the place to go. Once glorious compositions have been rotting, the acetates bubbling and breaking down: they have become decompositions. Small wonder, because they were never regarded as works of art by their handlers, tenderly curated, with one eye to posterity and the other on the auction rooms. On the contrary, they were treated like bales of paper and barrels of ink, raw materials for the publishing business, to be recycled endlessly in newspapers and magazines. The originals were bent, scribbled on, stored beside radiators and dripping pipes at their home, reeking of vinegar, in a Manhattan office building.

But, since 1995, the Bettmann has belonged to Corbis, a private company owned by Gates, which plans to suspend the ageing process at one stroke. The pictures will be relocated to refrigerated, dehumidified catacombs. Marc Osborn of Corbis says the company "takes its role as steward of these images very seriously".

But once they are interred more than 200 feet below ground, they will be out of reach, to the disgust of historians. "What is the point of conserving the photographs if no one can see them?" asks Gail Buckland, who trawled the Bettmann to research the illustrations for The American Century by Harold Evans. (The move begs another question, itself inspired by the hoary conundrum about the sound made by a tree falling in a deserted forest, of whether art is still art if there is nobody to look at it - a puzzle that only a Plato could possibly solve.) Corbis's position is that the Bettmann will be accessible online. The suspicion dawns that Gates conceives of "saving" the archive in the same way he might save a document on his desktop. But Osborn told me: "Only a handful of people every year actually come to the Bettmann in New York City to look at pictures. This very limited in-person access has always been policy, and will continue in the new underground facility, with requests for in-person visits evaluated on a case-by-case basis."

In addition to Corbis, Gates owns two other celebrated picture agencies, as well as the rights to license digital reproductions of works from museums including the Hermitage in St Petersburg and the National Gallery. He intends to make his entire portfolio available digitally. Call it the big idea of a world-beating mogul, call it the compulsion of a nerdy completist - in any event, it has failed to satisfy the Bettmann's admirers, who claim that not quite 2 per cent of the archive has been digitised. At $20 a pop, this isn't cheap, although the cost should perhaps be seen in the context of "Microsoft's legendary cash hoard" - as Fortune magazine described it this summer - at present swelled by no less than a billion dollars a month. Gates's people estimate that scanning the archive could take 25 years to complete, making the task sound more like producing a fair copy of the Book of Kells than an exercise in cutting-edge technology. Osborn says Corbis staff will accept requests to dig out pictures that haven't been digitised, and then load them on to the system. "We've done our best to open up the collection for more people to see and use while simultaneously preserving it for the long term," he argues. But it is reported that the company will retain only one employee to scan images at the Iron Mountain complex. This has been described as a "post- apocalyptic city designed to outlast human life", an extraordinary Gorgonzola of repositories housing everything from dental records to patents for mousetraps, some of the lock-ups designed to look like mansions, and reached by "Flintstones-style" golf carts through 20 miles of limestone tunnel.

Mention of limestone is a reminder that art has not always turned up below ground in such contentious circumstances. Paradoxically, the first images ever created appeared in caves like the very one Corbis proposes to turn into a deep-freeze of art. They were paintings by Cro-Magnon man in the limestone caverns of France and Spain. In early civilisations, the best that artists had to offer was reserved for locations out of plain view. "I have stood in the tomb of a pharaoh, in the remotest of many chambers hollowed out of solid rock," wrote John Updike, "and seen the sketchy gray underpainting of an unfinished mural, the strokes of the brush as full of decision and nervous energy as if done the day before rather than 3,000 years in the past."

Have we stumbled on something here, rather in the manner of Howard Carter in the Valley of the Kings in the 1920s? Could it be that Gates's gesture is a pharaonic one? Will the Microsoft logo become a funerary cartouche? After all, what are the trompe l'oeil, subterranean mansions of Iron Mountain but so many burial chambers? What are the Flintstones-style buggies but chariots, like the ones Tutankhamun had walled up with him for all eternity?

There is irony, if not much consolation, in the thought of the owner of the Bettmann gazing sightlessly on it through time, after preventing the rest of us from having a look. Granted, there is only the very limited circumstantial evidence, outlined above, to suggest that Gates conceives of a send-off to rival an ancient Eygptian's. For most of us, needless to say, the ride is far less swanky: so many generations have lived and died on the planet that the cemeteries groan and the Elysian Fields resemble a rock festival. Similarly, there are just too many photographs of us all. The debate about an archive - to entomb or to encode? - overlooks a bigger picture, because, where film is concerned, it is not only the chemicals that deteriorate. The New York Times illustrated its article about the Bettmann with a portrait captioned "the jazz musician Miles Davis". To distinguish him from Miles Davis the chiropractor, presumably, or the roach control operative with the initials "MD" on the breast of his boiler suit. With all due allowance for the i-dotting and t-crossing house style of a self-conscious "newspaper of record", you find yourself troubled by the philosophical question: what is the value of preserving a photograph if its subject decays in the memory?

Stephen Smith is a Channel 4 News reporter. He is writing a travel book about subterranean London

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2001 issue of the New Statesman, How long have we got?