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Decisive Moments: Google Gets Life Images


  "When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs.  When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence."  ~Ansel Adams  

"Photography records the gamut of feelings written on the human face, the beauty of the earth and skies that man has inherited, and the wealth and confusion man has created.  It is a major force in explaining man to man." 
~Edward Steichen



life coversLife magazine was born of the great depression and through much of the 20th century itserved as a key benefactor to the development of modern photojournalism.  The magazine chronicled the civil rights movement, the lunar landing.  It was in the offices of presidents and the cells of pariahs. It was the stage of actors and activists.   Its pages host to famed writers and legendary photographers – from Ernest Hemingway to Gordon Parks.

Through the years, Life survived some of the world’s most violent upheavals. It soldiered through two world wars, a presidential assassination and a shamed resignation.  What the magazine couldn’t outlive, or keep pace with, was western society’s evolution to a media culture.  First diminished by the image-overload of the television age, then crippled by an influx of competitive image centric and niche-specific magazines, Life Magazine finally succumbed to the Internet Information Age last year. 

On April 20th, 2007, after four years on life support as a newspaper insert, Life Magazine quietly passed.  In the media, we said our goodbyes and delivered our eulogies.

Fortunately, in the information age what’s gone need not be lost or forgotten.  And that is the case with Life’s image library of more than 10 million pictures.

At the time of Life’s demise, Time Inc, the subsidiary of Time Warner and publisher of the magazine pledged to carry on the legacy by building a public archive of the images.  In September, a deal with Getty Images was announced that will yield a jointly owned and operated image website at That site is expected to debut around February (early 2009).  (Note: Getty Images was bought out by Private Equity firm Hellman Friedman earlier this year)

Beating Time to the punch and “Out-Scooping” the news company on their own story, Google began the resurrection of Life’s famed photo’s last week.

Through a deal seemingly similar in concept to one Flickr struck with the Library of Congress,  Google secured the rights to index and host many of the more than 10 million pictures in the Life collection.  (Some images that editors deem “too graphic” may be held back and images that Life does not own the rights to, even if they appeared in the magazine, will also be excluded).

A majority of the images have never been publicly displayed before.

The project, which involves one of the largest image scanning tasks to date, corresponds naturally with Google’s mission “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” It also mirrors similar Google efforts to scan and index books from the world’s famed libraries.

For the initial launch, more than 2 million pictures were added to Google’s index.  All of the photos are publicly accessible and available to print if not being used in a commercial work.  They appear among the results of any Google image search, or are available separately at

From a revenue generation standpoint, it is expected that Google and Time will share any ad revenue generated from the project if ads are eventually placed on the relevant pages.  At this point, no ads are present and the only revenue source will be the sale of high resolution copies through Google is not expected to receive a share of those transactions.

The primary purpose of the partnership Life president Andy Blau said is not revenue but traffic.   "We did this deal for really one reason, to drive traffic to We wanted to make these images available to the greater public … everything else from that is really secondary."

Whatever their reasoning, Life now lives on.  Information junkies and history fans have a vast historical resource at their disposal.

… and just in case that’s not enough and surfers want more? Last week the European Union opened the doors to its own digital library project, Europeana… well, sort of.  The European archive’s site launched and promptly failed under the load of enormous traffic.   It’s expected Europeana will be properly load tested, fixed and back in Mid December. Once back up, it will offer millions of documents and images from the archives of the 27 members of the EU.

Related Articles from Metue
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