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The case of the historic photograph chase

2012 December 19

I am really, really feeling just about out of gas at this point. It really is nearly time for a break. But let’s carry on for a few more days here.

I have a book coming out next year, after all. 🙂

And there will probably be a number of posts here about that, both as promotion and because it was a big project that I found interesting and have complete permission to share in as much detail as I wish. At some point or other, I will probably post various notes on the cover design, the interior and typography, and the web site (which I will announce soon). But I think I’ll begin with a few remarks on the process of finding some graphics to use in my designs, in the first place.

Thinking about it, this is probably going to become two posts. The first one is a bit of a detective story, itself, although the obvious question wasn’t really much of a mystery; finding images was actually quite easy. I had written a book about nine men, and I knew from the outset that at least one portrait of each one had survived because one or more such portraits always accompanied one or more of the sources I consulted in researching those men. The trouble was not in finding images but in figuring out where and how to apply for permission to reproduce those images, and whether I needed to in the first place.

This leads to what I will probably come back to in a second post, but let me just say that it was very, very complicated, particularly that last issue. Examine this U.S. government web site, this PDF from the British government, and feel free to consult Wikipedia, too… and then tell me if you can figure out how to evaluate restrictions for a given historic photograph. If you can, I submit that you may have a very bright future in intellectual property law. For my part, confronted with this thicket (the advisability of which I shall return to in a follow-up post) I decided to play it safe.

A few images were rather easy. EugĂ©ne Vidocq, the earliest of Brilliant Deduction‘s subjects and one of only two for whom no photographs seem to have survived, was ironically the simplest; Wikipedia hosts a handsome engraving which it suggests is within the public domain and, given that it was likely made nearly 200 years ago, I took their word. Four detectives of the later 19th century and early 20th century have portraits at the Library of Congress—they seem to have most or all the surviving early records of Pinkerton‘s National Detective Agency, as well as multiple photos of the Pinkertons’ rival William J. Burns—and while even the LoC goes no further than cautiously stating “No known restrictions on publication” for many items and warns that “Rights assessment is your responsibility,” I decided that, for these men, too, I would consider the suggestion (or non-denial) of public domain status as adequate.

That left me with four other portraits to secure, three of which I ended up paying for rights to use. The authors of books about Jonathan Whicher and Isaiah Lees had provided the source of photographs they used, in both cases held by museums that proved willing and able to license me to use the same items. I spent some time going back and forth (virtually) with people in England and California, and I recall encountering a particular snag in attempting to pay the Hampshire Museums Service because I was unable to provide a United Kingdom postcode, but eventually we got it worked out. I went through similar virtual negotiations for rights to use the only known image of Ignatius Paul Pollaky, even though that image is also suggested as being a public domain work by Wikipedia. Unlike the older engraving of Vidocq, which seems to have reached Wikipedia multiple times from various sources, the Faustin Betbeder sketch of Pollaky was attributed to just one clearly identified source which also happens to be right here in Ohio.

One imagines that other copies of Figaro’s London Sketch Book of Celebrities have survived, somewhere or other, and one can also debate whether it makes sense for exclusive rights to this 1870 drawing to persist at all (which point, again, I shall revisit soon). But, the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum being right down the road in Columbus and, again, clearly identified as the source of Wikipedia’s scan, I decided to contact them and secure their blessing for a modest consideration.

Which left just one last portrait, which in another irony I ended up getting for free even though toward the end I would gladly have paid for usage rights if only I had been able to find someone to take my money. Ellis H. Parker of New Jersey is the last of the real-life great detectives profiled in Brilliant Deduction, and plenty of photographs survive of him, but I had a devil of a time finding anyone to provide the copyright-CYA I sought. Parker’s descendants maintain a web site about him which includes many photos, but my initial inquiry through the site went unanswered. As much of the site’s content is scanned from old newspapers, however, I then turned to contacting those which are still operating.

An approach that led nowhere, slowly. And I’m not really surprised by the end result. The vibrant, bustling Philadelphia-era papers of Parker’s day may survive in name, but 80 years on they have probably been bought up and gutted of resources just like so many newspapers. Combine that with the fact that, just like most once-renowned detectives, Parker has been forgotten even in his hometown, it isn’t really odd that I couldn’t find anyone to discuss licensing rights to a portrait of the man; I’m sure that none of those papers have someone paid specifically to be responsible for that kind of thing, and I can imagine that no one really felt like volunteering for additional job duties. I was a little astonished at how frequently I was nonetheless pointed to someone who could allegedly help me but then proved unreachable, though; how do these photography editors perform their jobs if they never answer the phone…? Oh well. In the end, I gave up on them and, with nowhere else to turn, contacted Parker’s biographer John Reisinger, who graciously helped me reach the Parker descendant I’d tried contacting in the first place, who in turn graciously provided me with a number of excellent photos, gratis.

So, in the end, a lot of time and effort, a modest amount of money, all to get back to where I’d been in the beginning in a sense, i.e. with decades-old photographs which have been widely reproduced and in most cases scanned and uploaded to the internet. I suppose this might be considered one example of why publishers still have their uses, even in the era of and ebooks; there’s still a lot of irreducible information processing to be done for any proper book and it makes a lot of work for one person. In this particular area, though, I believe it’s worth asking who really benefits from this, and how much, to which as noted I will return shortly.


4 Responses
  1. Bill Secrest permalink
    February 13, 2013

    Just read over your ilustration ordeal and can sympathize with you having gone thru the Your illstrations ordeal reminded me of my same sort of trials. A typical case was Wells Fargo. In the 1960s Irene Simpson was in charge of their historical photo archives. First photos I got from her were free – all they wanted was a credit line. Next they started asking me to pay charges for a copy negative. Next time pay for the print and before long they were asking for a use fee which became larger with every order. Last I heard use fee was up to $75 and probably much more by now. As far as I am concerned, the advertising they get from someone using one of their photos should be all they should ask – but that is just my humble position. Can’t remember what Bancroft wants but they are up there, too! Now all this is fine if you just need a few illustrations, but I always use a lot and do what I can to avoid these usually exoribtant costs. If you have seen any of my books you’ll kow what I mean. I think pictures complete the story and all of my books perhaps have too many photos, if anything. My Lees’ biography and my Indian book, “When the great Spirit Died” are examples. Fortunately I have friends in the field and we frequently help each other out with
    illustrations. I was fortunate years ago to discover the old San Francisco police mug books dating back to the early 1860s containing many of the early criminals captured and jailed in San Francisco. Anyway, just sharing some experiences. Best wishes……………….secrest

  2. Matt permalink
    February 14, 2013

    Thanks for stopping by, Bill! I couldn’t agree more. I ended up using just nine photos in my book, and the expense for that was just small; the time required securing permissions was huge. If I had wanted to use several dozen illustrations, it would have cost a small fortune and taken longer than writing the book.

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