Condé Nast is mining the archives.
When Ivan Shaw was named Condé Nast’s photography director in 2017, charged with leveraging the company’s archive of photography, illustrations and magazine covers, he knew cataloguing and digitizing a trove of 1.25 million images would be the research project of a lifetime. The company’s three-year deal with Shutterstock, unveiled April 8, made the collection — a trove of assets spanning Vogue, Vanity Fair, GQ, Glamour, House & Garden and Gourmet — available on a mass market scale. Shaw is still working through decades worth of content.
Now that the archive is live, the companies are rolling out a short documentary to bring it to life. And possibly serve as the first of other short-form films to mine more than 100 years of iconic photography and magazine covers.
The 10-minute documentary has Shaw and Shutterstock vice president of editorial Candice Murray, recounting the stories behind some of the collection’s most famed images. Included is an Edward Steichen portrait of Gloria Swanson, from the February 1928 Vanity Fair. As Shaw explains in the film, it was actually an outtake from a 1924 Vogue photoshoot featuring emerging actresses. Four years, later Swanson was much more famous and the Steichen portrait, in which she’s wearing a black headdress and shot behind a screen of lace, was an instant classic.
“During the pandemic, we saw more demand for archival content,” Murray, who managed content licensing at Condé Nast before joining Shutterstock five years ago, said in an interview. “There were no live events, people couldn’t do productions, so they were creating stories with archival content. And that’s what keyed us in to, hey there’s something there. This demand is not going to go away.”
For legacy publishers, which saw print ad revenue fall even further during the pandemic, archival content is an increasingly important revenue stream. And social channels and the explosion of digital media has created a robust market for it.
“I love sharing stories,” Shaw said in an interview. “I want to share the images with as many people as possible.”
There are about 1.25 million in the Condé Nast archive now, and there are still images to be scanned, though most of the Vogue and Vanity Fair archives have been digitized. But, said Shaw, “I feel there is still a significant amount of material to be uncovered.”
The value is not just in the images themselves, but the stories behind them. Shaw, who was the executive photo director at Vogue before becoming photography director for the archive, recalls learning just a few weeks ago that a famous 1976 photo of model Lisa Taylor by Vogue photographer Arthur Elgort was not shot on the George Washington Bridge, as he believed. In the image, Taylor is sitting in the driver’s seat, her hair blowing mane-like over the car’s rag top.
“I had always thought that it was this New York moment of this model speeding across the George Washington Bridge,” he said. “That was the story as I understood it.”
A couple weeks ago, he said, during a visit with former Vogue editor Polly Mellen, now 97, he learned the truth. “She said, ‘No, no, no, we shot that in Palm Beach at the Breakers.’ It changed the context of the photograph for me.”
Said Shaw: “There’s always more to the story.”