Ebony seeks buyer for photo archive, the 'African American Getty'

Tue Jan 27, 2015 2:07pm EST
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By Fiona Ortiz

CHICAGO (Reuters) - A climate-controlled archive in Chicago holds 5 million images of what could be called the African American experience since 1942, including exceptional, intimate photographs of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., singer Billie Holiday and boxer Muhammad Ali.

Now Johnson Publishing, parent company of struggling Ebony and Jet magazines, is seeking a buyer for the archive, which it estimates is worth more than $40 million.

"Nothing exists like it. It's almost like an African American Getty," Johnson Publishing Chief Executive Desiree Rogers told Reuters, referring to the renowned Getty Images photojournalism archive.

"We are still the curators of the African American experience. That's the mantle the editors wear," she said.

Johnson has contracted Mark Lubell, executive director of the International Center of Photography in New York, to help get the collection appraised and find a buyer.

Rogers would not comment on potential buyers or whether commercial or historical archives had expressed interest.

The company spent 18 months organizing the images but has digitized only about 6,000 of the millions of photographs and videos, said Rogers, President Barack Obama's former White House social secretary. Johnson Publishing makes little money off the rights to the images, she said.

Facing declining readership and ad revenue, like much of the magazine industry, Jet magazine went digital-only last year. Ebony's print and digital versions both went through expensive redesigns in recent years.   Continued...

Martin Luther King Jr. reads the newspaper as he prepares to  accept his Nobel Prize Award in 1964, in this handout image provided by the Ebony Collection. REUTERS/Moneta Sleet Jr/Johnson Publishing Co./Ebony Collection/Handout