If the lights went out right now — some solar flare that fried the worldwide electrical grid like the doomsday preppers are always talking about on TV, maybe — you can rest easy knowing that the collective human past would endure. We're not talking about just books and old newspapers and stories told around the campfire, either. We're talking about the actual moments that prove we existed and what we value. That's what photographs really are when you get down to it: a judgment call by somebody — be that somebody Dorothea Lange or Ansel Adams or some nobody at a backyard barbecue — that a single second of a given lifetime was worth preserving forever. If all the gadgets and gizmos we've come to increasingly rely on went dark right now, the two-dimensional products of that desire (those created in the pre-digital world, anyway) would live on in a hundred million shoeboxes.
One person who knows a lot about photographs as things that capture more than a moment is 37-year-old North Little Rock entrepreneur John Rogers. To hear him tell it, he's walked bass ackwards into a sultan's fortune over the past 15 years, going from selling baseball cards to almost singlehandedly creating the concept of buying and selling large quantities of news photos to the general public. Over the past three years, his Rogers Photo Archive in North Little Rock has been on a buying spree, purchasing the vast photo morgues of 11 great (and greatly cash-strapped) American newspapers, including the Chicago Sun-Times, The Denver Post, the Boston Herald and The Detroit News.
In most cases, Rogers gets the physical prints from their archives, everything from never-before-seen originals of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley to tonnage-quantities of snaps taken during long-forgotten news events. In exchange, the papers get an electronic copy of their old photo archives — digitized and tagged one by one by Rogers' crews in North Little Rock and India — that allows them to search for a given subject with just a few keystrokes. As of this writing, the Rogers Photo Archive has the capability to scan, clean and tag over 1.2 million photos and 1.3 million negatives a month; a system being tested right now by a new deal to digitize the photo archives of the 30 newspapers in the McClatchy Company newspaper chain. Rogers said that when the McClatchy scans are completed, it will bring the total photographic holdings of the Rogers Photo Archive to over 80 million images, making it by far the largest privately-held collection of still photos in the world.
After the digital copies have been returned to the original owners, Rogers makes his money via several revenue streams, including licensing images of celebrities, politicians and sports icons, selling "stock photo" rights, and selling original prints online. The Rogers Archive is, for example, the biggest seller on eBay right now, with over two million photos currently for sale in their eBay store. Rogers said eBay alone brings in $120,000 a week. That's in addition to what the archive makes from catalogue auctions of one-of-a-kind historic photos, super-high quality prints taken from the glass negatives of a photographer Rogers calls "The Matthew Brady of Baseball," and a sideline company that makes photographic sports collectibles that wind up in the gift shops of many major league parks.
Rogers said he feels like he's helping to preserve American history for coming generations while bringing the 20th Century, as chronicled by American journalism, out of dusty basement file cabinets and into the light of day. His goal is to digitize the photo archive of every American newspaper.