Archive Pictures' Unity in Diversity
November 1986
By Richard Hertzberg

Huddled over a large light table at Archive Pictures in Manhattan's SoHo district are several photographers and a couple of researchers examining different sets of slides. A steady stream of conversational banter, punctuated by short periods of silence, flows from the group. In the background, some soothing jazz can be heard and the aroma of freshly-brewed coffee drifts pleasantly across the room.

Business is brisk and prospering at Archive Pictures, an agency that is moving in its own quietly aggressive way toward becoming a major source of images used in numerous markets around the world. The new computerized billing system shows the company's growth rate as 20 percent a year, magazines like German Geo, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, The New York Times Magazine and Fortune have become consistent clients, as have textbook publishers Wadsworth, McGraw-Hill and Macmillan.

As a picture agency, Archive is an experiment on the way to becoming an institution, with a guiding philosophy that seeks to integrate esthetic freedom and  commercial necessity. In its ability to encompass distinct photographic styles, career orientations and personality types under one roof, Archive has, in the words of its editorial manager Alain Jullien, 33, “the convenience of a clubhouse and the advantages of a corporation.”

Archive was founded in 1981 by five former Magnum photographers: Mark Godfrey, Charles Harbutt, Abigail Heyman, Joan Liftin and Mary Ellen Mark. This original coalition was soon expanded to nine after the addition of Roswell Angier, Ethan Hoffman, Jeff Jacobson and Michael O’Brien in 1982. All nine partners helped finance the company, with the money in most cases drawn from sales revenues. (Hoffman is currently president of the group and was recently re-elected to serve through 1987.)

The small roster of active partners helps maintain stability in a remarkably structure-free organization. "The small number of partners enables a very human level of contact to exist," explains Joan Liftin. "We built Archive on mutual respect and we want it to continue that way."

Also involved in Archive Pictures are the "contributors,” a fluctuating assortment that numbers around 40, including Ernesto Bazan, Earl Dotter, Jill Freedman, Evelyn Hofer, Bill Owens, Martin Parr, Alen MacWeeney, Sylvia Plachy, Larry Price and David Rubinger. To be included as a contributor, six out of the nine partners must vote 'yea.' Archive also distributes the work of André Kértesz and Michael Disfarmer.

An intimate family portrait.

There are several levels of involvement, expressive style and work pace that co-exist at Archive. Charles Harbutt, who was with Magnum for 18 years and served as its president twice, talks about “the balance at Archive between a commitment to adventuresome photography and financial success, between photography as technique and as communication, as visual statement. Archive photographers are working on different projects, some very personal and some related directly to sales by the agency, and some combining both."

Cases in point the careers of partners Roswell Angier and Ethan Hoffman, and contributor Polly Brown. Hoffman, 37, was trained in the black-and-white documentary tradition at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. He made his first professional sale to Life magazine, from a portfolio of images taken at a prison at Walla Walla, Washington. The series was later collected in a book, called Concrete Mama, recently re-issued by the University of Missouri.

Now living in New York, Hoffman's current fascination is with all forms of Japanese life, contemporary and classical. First sent to Japan on a Life assignment in 1983, he remembers the experience vividly: "It was an incredible visual orgy, an assault on my senses unlike any other, and I kept seeing pictures everywhere. I've made seven or eight trips now, averaging about two months each. Often I shoot what interests me and then construct the story later on." His most recent book, soon to be released by Aperture, offers a color portrait of the Japanese dance form called Butoh.

Having worked almost exclusively in color for the past three years, Hoffman has been branching out into corporate photography of late, shooting annual reports and company brochures for Japanese multinationals and hiring a New York rep to help him break into the U.S. market..

Roswell Angier, 45, of Cambridge, and Polly Brown, 43, of nearby Marblehead share a similar photographic philosophy and practical approach, shooting, mainly in black and white, those elements of the modern American landscape that are found beyond the borders of mainstream culture.

For Angler, May of 1986 marked a critical turning point in his fife: he left a ten-year career as a teacher of photography to become a full-time practitioner of the medium. 'Teaching kept the tuna in the icebox," he says, "but there's no doubt that it was time for my road to turn. I believe strongly that there doesn't need to  be a conflict between commercial and personal work, that they energize each other, and I wanted to test this belief."

Among the projects that have captivated Angier’s attention for a number of years is a look at the punk scene in Boston, Los Angeles and New York. Another is the decline and fall of smoke-stack industries in and around Newark, New Jersey, and the impact this has had on the residents nearby.

Ones, form a large photo-essay on the towns bordering the vast Navajo reservation that stretches across parts of Arizona and New Mexico. These are harsh, unromantic views of the uneasy co-existence of Indians and whites in the junky highway towns of the region. The presence of alcohol, consumed in dark bars lit only by television screens and on desolate, windswept street corners permeates these photographs. The angry stares and vacant expressions that characterize lives of permanent aimlessness are presented in a direct way is impossible to avoid.

'Circuitous" is the word Polly Brown uses to describe the pattern of her career. Like Angier, she comes to her current work following a major change: abandoning a successful portraiture business that was, in her words, "photographically stagnant." Leaving her business in early 1980, Brown enrolled in Angier's photography class at Boston's Art Institute; a class that she has taught since Angier’s departure.

One of her successful projects concerns pregnant recently published in an  11-page essay in the French magazine Photo. The black-and-white photos of the teenage mothers are intimate, uncomplicated portraits of the subjects, exhibiting both sadness and empathy. She brings the viewer quietly but dramatically into the lives of these young mothers, revealing to us the poignant, sometimes funny, sometimes reflective moments that characterize their changing relationships with parents, siblings, boyfriends and, most of all, themselves.

Archive photographers handle their own primary assignments; the agency is involved with secondary sales, of photo essays and stories as well as
single-image stock (fees are split 50/50 between agency and photographer). On international sales, Archive's policy is to deal with only one agent, agency or direct buying source in each country.,

Magazine placements have been developing with greater frequency, as a summary of recently published material illustrates: the cover of the new York Times Magazine for August 17 featured a portrait of Japanese architect Arata Isozaki taken by Ethan Hoffman; the October issue of Psychology Today includes photographs of teenage mothers from the work of Polly Brown and Mary Ellen Mark; the May issue of the Italian magazine L’Illustrazione contains images of New York by Charlie Harbutt, Ethan Hoffman, Jeff Jacobson, Joan Liftin and Mary Ellen Mark; and finally, the September/October issue of European Travel and Life includes 19 photographs of Prague by Harbutt.

At the Archive picture library, standards for inclusion are high. As Harbutt bluntly explains: “Bad pictures cost money, therefore our editing is rigid.” Currently performing the editing tasks are Jacobson, Heyman and Liftin; membership on the editing committee rotates among the partners.

Says Joan Liftin: “We have denied ourselves the right to dump material in the library. Therefore we edit each other, believing that this is a task and a responsibility that must be shared."

Liftin refers almost reverentially to Archive’s library as "the soul of the place." Indeed, she explains that one of the principal purposes in establishing Archive, was to "compile an excellent documentary library that would include more than just work from the original five partners. Of course, we want our pictures to sell, but to be known not just as a source of news photographs but as a place where good photography is found that 'informs' on a number of different levels- literal, representational, symbolic, esthetic, emotional."

And Archive's clients seem to agree: although many requests from magazines begin with a search for a single picture, they are often expanded into a complete photo essay because of the quality and continuity of the submissions.

Archive was founded by a common desire on the part of the five founders "to, have a place of their own," as Charlie Harbutt phrases it. "At Archive, there are no agents," says Harbutt. "The photographers are in the forefront. We were equally concerned about reducing competitive tensions and conflicts, and finding an organizational framework that would give more creative freedom to photographers, more stress-free time, by insuring a moderate level of economic security: All of these considerations have influenced the shape of Archive. For example, Joan and I worked very hard  from September 1985 through April 86, and as a result we were able to take off and spend four months in Europe on our own this past spring. Archive has enabled us to be in a position so that something like this is possible.”

This realization brought both a smile of satisfaction and a sigh of relief. It's clear that in creating Archive, he and the other partners have truly found “their place.”