F E A T U R E S    Issue 2.11 - November 1996

In His Image

By Richard Rapaport

Bill Gates's Corbis is more than the ultimate digital stock image house. It may be the first online, for-profit library.

The Corbis archive consists of approximately 1 million digital images. It is growing at a rate of 40,000 images a month, as pictures from various realms of human endeavor - history, the arts, entertainment, nature, and science - are digitized.

A wonder of the ancient world, the Great Library in Alexandria was an edifice the corridors of which housed the papyrus scrolls that were the sum total of human knowledge. The library was constructed in the second century BC by Ptolemy I, who ruled Egypt after Alexander the Great. Unlike Alexander, whose conquests were tangible and bloody, producing the greatest empire the world had ever seen, Ptolemy deemed as his legacy an archive, a place where the total wisdom of mankind could be gathered, preserved and disseminated.

Ptolemy wanted his Egyptian subjects to recognise a non-martial legacy as profound as that of any of the pharaohs whose pyramids and tombs, even in the second century before Christ, offered mute testimony to the ancient greatness that had been Egypt. Even after it was destroyed in the third century AD, the library remained a legendary testimonial to the immense human drive to gather and codify knowledge.

A woven basket

At first glance, the top floor of a three-story, spec office building in a wooded stretch of the Seattle suburb of Bellevue hardly seems a likely repository for pharaonic dreams of human knowledge preserved. And yet within, from the corner office of Charles Mauzy, director of media development for the Bill Gates-owned company called Corbis, dreams of a new repository of human knowledge do not seem out of place.

The name Corbis is taken from the Latin for "woven basket". Over lunch, Mauzy explains the scope of the material being gathered into Corbis's electronic basket, the digital archive he is helping to create at the behest of the company's chair, who also rules Microsoft. There is a certain princely symmetry here, noted especially by those who view Gates's domination of the digital realm as one that challenges the conquests of some of history's other great rulers.

But is Corbis really the undertaking of a modern Alexander in search of new territory to conquer - in this case, the potentially lucrative world of digital imagery? Or is it the work of a latter-day Ptolemy, an enlightened patron wanting to take photography and painting under his tech wing and thereby make a lasting mark on the visual arts?

Whether a cold-hearted business play to control increasingly valuable "content" or an altruistic gift to posterity, the activities of Corbis have sent shock waves through the diffident domains of painting and photography, as the steely gaze of Bill Gates comes to rest on the arts.

A Britannica without body text

To the question of Corbis's ultimate purpose, Mauzy answers with contagious excitement that "the mandate is to build a comprehensive visual encyclopaedia, a Britannicawithout body text."

The archive, around which all of Corbis's activities centre, consists of approximately 1 million digital images. It is growing at a rate of 40,000 images a month, as pictures from various realms of human endeavour - history, the arts, entertainment, nature and science - are digitised. It includes:

Photography, with work from such renowned professionals as Ansel Adams, Galen Rowell, Laura Dwight, Shelley Gazin and Roger Ressmeyer. Corbis has also commissioned several dozen photographers to fan out around the world to fill the Corbis catalogue - an increasingly sought-after assignment.

Archival material from the Library of Congress, rare Civil War photos from the Medford Historical Society in Oregon, as well as 19th- and early-20th-century photo portraiture from the Pach Brothers and works from dozens of other collections.

Fine art that includes works from institutions such as Saint Petersburg's State Hermitage Museum, The National Gallery of London, the Royal Ontario Museum, Detroit Institute of Art, Japan's Sakamoto archive and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The 16 million-item Bettmann Archive - with one of the world's richest collections of drawings, motion pictures and other historic arcana. In many ways, Corbis was first taken seriously when Gates, according to Newsweek, put down a reported US$6 million (£4 million) to buy it in October of 1995.

Together these add up to a reservoir of material that warrants Charles Mauzy's hyperbole and may swell into the world's most comprehensive digital reserve of the imagery of mankind.

But digital is the operative term here. Corbis still has to contend with some of the great, if undigitised, image repositories in the world: the Library of Congress, for instance - with more than 13 million photographs, paintings and drawings - or Time Inc., with 20 million-plus items. And the oil-rich Getty family's purchase in April of the Hulton Deutsch collection (one of the largest non-American repositories of historic photography) reminds us that Gates is not the only mogul gambling on "content" as a fungible and lucrative investment.

Armed with the Gates chequebook, Corbis wants to be the groundbreaker in a market that may not even become viable for another decade. "This is not a 'not-for-profit' organisation," president Doug Rowan says with gusto about his ability to conjure free from fiscal constraint. "It will take five to ten years before we break even."

The word future is repeated like a mantra throughout the corridors of Corbis. The immediate future, then, will keep Corbis's half-dozen Scitex digital scanners - worth a half-million dollars each, and the largest concentration on the planet - busy 24 hours a day. The more distant future will keep Charles Mauzy busy building what he believes "will represent a legacy of incalculable wealth," ultimately destined to become a "digital Alexandria".

Banking on images

"Despite Charles's bravado, we have really only a small amount of what exists in the world," says Steve Davis, the vice president of strategic and legal affairs, who has helped guide Corbis almost since its inception. From a business standpoint, Davis readily admits, the company still paints on a pretty small canvas. Or perhaps a diptych: today, Corbis has entered the market with two different, but ultimately related, businesses.

The first involves the production of a small num-ber of quality CD-ROMs, the materials of which draw mostly from the Corbis collection. So far, four titles are out, including A Passion for Art, a tour through the little-viewed Barnes Collection of impressionist painting; Critical Mass, a multimedia history of the building of the atomic bomb; Volcanoes, a scientific exploration by former National Geographic photographer Roger Ressmeyer; and Cézanne, an essay on the works of the post-impressionist master. Two titles scheduled for release this fall are FDR, which traces the life of the 37th president, and Leonardo, largely based on the da Vinci notebook bought by Gates in 1995.

Corbis's second arm is a commercial image bank. Except for its massive digitisation effort, the company's business model compares with conventional photo-stock houses. In such operations - ImageBank, Gamma, Sigma, Black Star - transparencies of images are kept on file and physically catalogued. When an image is requested for publication or display, the transparency is copied, the stock house is paid and a royalty flows to the artist.

Corbis ranks as a mid-size stock business, selling a small but growing number of images from its collection to book publishers, magazines and other media outlets. A U.S. News & World Report cover, an image from the collection of the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, was the company's biggest score yet. The fee, a few thousand dollars, represents a tiny fraction of what Corbis has invested in its inventory. "It is not a huge splash," Davis says of Corbis's entry into the photo-stock market, "but we decided to go swimming instead of just talking about it."

In early July 1996 Corbis, which was already online with its www.corbis.com digital gallery, opened its archive directly to one select commercial customer; it plans on eight to ten by the end of the year. Armed with a T1 connection and a password supplied by Corbis, these clients can access the database directly and search for images by subject, artist, date, or keyword. Once the images are presented online, they are culled; selected images can be ordered with a mouseclick. Because of the shortage of bandwidth and the length of time it takes to download images averaging 35 Mbytes each, orders are sent out overnight on custom-cut CD-ROMs. (Watermarks are affixed to each online image to insure against unauthorised use; also, because the images contain a limited number of pixels, they blur when enlarged, rendering them of little use to potential image snatchers.)

Traditional stock houses profess little concern over competition from Corbis. "The majority of the established client base is not out there surfing for images," suggests Don Barlow, senior vice president at ImageBank, the Kodak-owned stock house that is one of the world's largest. Digitised imagery makes up less than 5% of the $500 million-plus American market in stock photography - and not all of that belongs to Corbis.

Furthermore, the Corbis method isn't a particularly economical way to go - at least not right now. Digital images with the sharpness and rich colour required for print take up a lot of a computer's memory and disk space. And the actual scanning and digitisation of images is a time-consuming, expensive endeavour.

But Corbis's ultimate success is based on a two-part wager: that memory prices will continue to plunge, and that digital photography will sooner or later replace the chemical-based process in use over the last 150 years. "A massive shift to digital benefits us," says CEO Rowan, an avuncular former IBMer, during a stop in the air-conditioned room containing the dozen or so Compaq servers on which the Corbis archive resides.

Corbis as theme park

Perhaps the specifics of the current business plan are not as important as the act of creating the archive. Ultimately, Corbis's digitised collection will offer a spectacular range of options, as media evolve and the demand for images and visual stories ratchets up in many markets. The current strategy is to hang loose and see what opens up.

One intriguing possibility is for Corbis to offer online consumer productions that are somewhere between coffee-table books and documentary television. Rowan and other execs see its CD-ROM products as prototypes for these online presentations. CD-ROM technology is seen as an expedient - training for the ultimate transition to online. "CD-ROMs will not be long-lived at Corbis," Rowan notes. "We can deliver by LAN or WAN, and we'd love to do it over cable modem or satellite dish."

A project based on the Ansel Adams collection, due out in 1997, will have an interactive online element, not yet defined, that is seen as a halfway house to Corbis Online. Beyond this, Corbis will gradually scale up its online capabilities.

What is needed is an interface so user-friendly that customers would be able to create their own CD-ROM-like "productions", either by doing their own searching or by using a human or software-based guide. "It will be like a history theme park," says Mike Martucci, director of sales and marketing, describing how students, teachers and surfers will be able to create their own documentaries by doing "moulded searches" of the Corbis archive.

The software architecture for Corbisland is still in the works, but Davis suggests that "more flexible mapping" will be a necessary prerequisite to meet the demands of a would-be Ken Burns.

The largest drawback to Corbis as theme park, however, is not a technical but an economical one: it is the conundrum of how online services will be paid for, either through a pay-per-view method or through the fees earned from hits on an online service like AOL or, more likely, The Microsoft Network.

Corbis has been fairly conservative in its adoption of new technology, particularly in its use of full-motion video and virtual reality for its CD-ROMs. Nevertheless, as online video becomes more and more doable, the archive must inevitably evolve beyond still imagery. There is widespread confidence inside the company that its early start with digitisation gives it a leg up on whatever online multimedia opportunities open up. There are even those, like CD-ROM division Executive Producer Lisa Anderson, who see Corbis as the prototype of an all-content-on-demand, public-access, private library.

"If we need to bring in more text, audio, or video to make it richer, then we'll talk about it," Anderson says. "I refuse to accept any limitations."

Culture clash

This notion of delivering digital online content is one of the few constants at Corbis and has driven the company since its inception in 1989, when it was called Interactive Home Systems. Established as Bill Gates's "content company", it was chartered to acquire a digitised art collection that Gates planned to display on the high-definition television screens installed at his futuristic waterfront stronghold near Seattle.

But the philosophical underpinning of Interactive Home Systems and its later incarnations - first Continuum, then Corbis - was based on a grander notion: Gates's belief that just as software had replaced hardware as technology's most valuable product, so too would content eventually replace instruction sets as the basis of digital value. While the theory might have been elegant, its execution was anything but graceful. Call it a cultural mismatch between the lords of software and the recalcitrant artists who were the object of often-clumsy desire.

Interactive Home Systems first made news in early 1991, when reports surfaced that Gates was looking to acquire a pilot content database before going ahead with a larger project. Because Gates was involved, reporters inevitably penned stories of a New Age William Randolph Hearst pillaging collections for famous photos and paintings.

In May 1991, Interactive Home Systems made its first major deal with a non-exclusive licence for 1,000 works from the Seattle Art Museum. Stories indicated that Gates had paid around half a million for rights to the collection. That same year, Microsoft began to write "natural language" software that would allow the non-Boolean use of databases such as the one being designed by Interactive Home Systems.

News of the digital treasure hunt provoked a similar response throughout the American photographic community: anxiety. This flared in September 1991, when Photo District News, the bible of the photo-stock industry, got its hands on an Interactive Home Systems contract and turned it over to several intellectual property lawyers for analysis. The consensus, Photo District News reported, was that "Microsoft's deal runs roughshod over photographers' interests." It published the agreement under the headline "The Microsoft Contract: A Blueprint for Giving Away the Store".

"This was a lightning rod for the change to the new digital era, attracting a sort of free-floating anxiety about the way the market was changing," says photographer Roger Ressmeyer, who overcame his angst and eventually went to work for Corbis. San Francisco-based freelance photographer Ed Kashi, who has so far refused to succumb to Corbis's blandishments, attributes the "mistrust, even paranoia" to aesthetic concerns about digitisation itself. "There is a sacred trust between the viewer and the vehicle," Kashi notes. "No matter how good an image looks on a screen, if it doesn't have meaning, there is no lingua franca."

The widespread antagonism took the Gates organisation by surprise, but only briefly. Within a month, Corbis hired Steve Arnold, a compadre of Nolan Bushnell at Atari and a mainstay at Lucasfilm, where he had worked as a developer of multimedia and kiosk technology. Arnold's job as CEO was to smooth the troubled artistic waters surrounding the company. But the going was slow for the next two years.

In late 1991, Interactive Home Systems was rumoured to have lost out to Kodak in a bidding war for ImageBank. Electronic publishers in general were having a difficult time rounding up sources: stock houses, photographers and museums remained wary of attempts to gain control of their digital rights. "There was a lot of uncertainty over digital images, the impact on their businesses, and an uncertainty who the players were," Mauzy recalls.

The log-jam began to break as Interactive Home Systems continued to soften its requirement for exclusive rights to images. In November 1992, it also changed its name to Continuum Productions Corp. in an attempt to snuff the rapacious reputation of its predecessor. Continuum later became Corbis, and the company was reorganised under Doug Rowan's leadership.

In late 1994, Gates stunned the art world with an audacious $30.8 million bid at a Christie's auction for one of Leonardo da Vinci's extraordinary illustrated notebooks, known as the Codex Leicester. Continuum quashed fears that the treasure would end up squirrelled away from public view when it bought the rights to existing photographic images of the Codex from their joint owners, the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Centre and photographer Seth Joel.

Bringing artists on board

During 1995, Corbis began gathering digital fruits for its archival basket at an astonishing rate. Not only were agreements reached with various museums, but Corbis also won over Ressmeyer, who is famous for his elaborately lit scientific and aerospace-related tableaux. Ressmeyer sold his collection and his stock company to Corbis for an estimated $1 million and ultimately went to work for the company. The Ressmeyer agreement marked a major turning point for Corbis; it signalled to the photographic community that digital was happening. Other photographers - Neil Preston, Vince Steano, Galen Rowell - soon came around.

Rowell's accord was particularly sweet for Corbis. One of America's leading nature photographers, the Berkeley, California-based artist had initially been sceptical. The 25-page legal contract was, however, non-exclusive and offered Rowell (and many other photographers to follow) an unprecedented advance for every image selected by the archive. In exchange, Rowell agreed to a 20-year arrangement, far longer than usual between stock houses and photographers but a fair estimation of the time it would take digital technology to supersede hand-accessed and chemical-based methods.

One downside to the Rowell contract is the price of inside image sales. In other words, while the company charges market price for the outside use of images, when they are used in a Corbis or Microsoft project, the payment is minimal. Corbis, of course, is a distinct company; nevertheless, its link to Gates's other company has dredged up the old issue of whether Microsoft has given itself an insurmountable and unfair advantage as it vies to be the provider of choice for online content. But the issue of bundling has not stopped several hundred photographers from casting their lot with Corbis.

After fierce initial resistance, museums also came to the realisation that digital imagery was a fact of life. "I remember being reluctant to go digital," says Dirk Bakker, director of photography, rights and reproduction at the Detroit Institute of Art, stressing the aesthetic importance of a face-to-face experience with art.

In the long run, however, there are simply too many benefits to digitisation for museums to ignore. First, digitising solves the long-standing problem of fading photography. "Re-photographing every two decades is preposterous," Bakker says about what has been an expensive and necessary chore for museums. A better reason to go digital is the development of an online presence, which museums like the Detroit Institute can use to engage potential patrons as never before.

But even as museums have signed up with Corbis or other digital image companies - including PhotoDisc, Digital Stock Corporation, Corel Corporation and Picture Network International - there has been an insistence on insulating themselves, both by non-exclusive arrangement and by retaining veto power over "inappropriate" digital uses.

Several museums have also insisted on running their own Web sites rather than folding them into the Corbis database. "It's an issue of control," says Jed Perl, art critic for The New Republic. "It's my impression they're very nervous about having it seem like Bill Gates has a big finger in the pie."

Listening to Leonardo

Like it or not, Gates's digits and his digitisations will play an increasingly prominent role in the way art - and especially photography - is presented and viewed. For some, like Perl, the continued concentration of content in a few hands is a cause for concern. For others, like the Detroit Institute's Bakker, it is an opportunity to involve a growing number of people in the arts.

For me, the Alexandrine potentiality of Corbis was eloquently brought home when, after a day of interviews, I was given a presentation of the new Leonardo CD-ROM.

I was not an unbiased observer. Da Vinci is a personal god, an exemplar of mankind's most gifted. Nowhere is the quicksilver genius of the man so evident as in the 15th-century notebooks in which he visually mused about art, music, science and engineering, sketching prototypes of the parachute, modern woodwinds, the tank, the helicopter and so much more.

Having seen printed reproductions of the Codex did not prepare me for the luminous representation on a colour PC screen in the darkened room of Corbis's Leonardo production team.

The glowing phosphors illuminate the sepia pages of da Vinci's work, with its spidery text and the brilliant drawings that have become archetypal representations of invention. (The artist wrote in his own secret code, a reverse script that could be read only in its mirror image.) Before me on the screen, a transparent window passes over the Codex text and transforms the backward Italian script frontward, a boon to scholars who have resorted to mirrored visors to read the originals. Corbis named this magic window "the Codascope".

Passing it over the text again, I watch with a thrill of recognition as it changes the Italian text into English, still in the elegant handwriting of the master. It is as if Leonardo can suddenly speak: a new level of verisimilitude is revealed, a deeper level in the archaeology of knowledge is reached.

When Gates first viewed the transformation rendered by the Codascope, he told Rowan that Corbis had "raised the bar on all multimedia presentations." Such a stunningly prosaic take on this wondrous addition to the understanding of one of the world's greatest artists makes me suspicious. Is Corbis just Bill Gates's electronic butterfly net - a hobbyist's means of capturing art and artists so they can be preserved in electronic formaldehyde and pinned neatly into his digitised collection? Or is it just a crass attempt to cash in on the inevitable shift from an analogue market of images to a digital one?

Perhaps there is a third, happier possibility that combines Gates's unspoken bid for a Ptolemaic legacy with his Alexander-like drive to conquer and control. If the intelligence of the Leonardo CD-ROM spreads to other multimedia and online presentations, and if Corbis causes the market to grapple with and resolve the stubborn issues of copyright and distribution, Corbis's electronic woven basket may yet fulfil Charles Mauzy's glorious promise of a "digital Alexandria".

Richard Rapaport is a San Francisco-based freelance writer.