By TIM ARANGO
The images have been scattered about in dusty and moldy warehouses, relics of the pre-Internet age. Photography was integral to selling music then, and the photographers went on to become nearly as famous as their subjects.
“Every day is like, what am I going to find today?” said Grayson Dantzic, the archivist for Atlantic Records in New York. With colleagues at Warner Music Group, Atlantic’s parent, he is part of an ambitious project to recover the company’s story - and a good chunk of American cultural history as well - by excavating the contents of nearly 100,000 boxes from warehouses around the globe, in places like Brazil, Japan and Australia.
The photographs and other memorabilia track popular music from the Edwardian and Victorian ages to disco and jazz, from Beethoven to Miles Davis. The material is potentially quite valuable, and the company is searching for ways to make money from it, through high-end art books, sales to collectors and applications for iPads. The project is also a story of what media companies have left behind as they increasingly move to digital formats.
A record label’s
search relinks music
and visual art.
The archive project may also be instructive for reintegrating visual art into music marketing. “Visual art has historically been a powerful component that deepens fans’ music experience,” said Will Tanous, an executive vice president at Warner who is overseeing the project. “We lost that in recent years.
But with today’s emerging digital platforms, we have the opportunity to inspire a renaissance in visual art associated with music.” A photocopy of a letter from Beethoven to a former pupil, dated 1819, has sent the archivists digging for the valuable original. But the bulk of the delights are the rock and jazz photographs .
“There was a real sense of documentation back then,” said Bob Kaus, an Atlantic executive. “Music and art really go together.” Among other images are platinum palladium prints Irving Penn took of Miles Davis; New Orleans jazz photos from the 1950s by Lee Friedlander; a contact sheet of Annie Leibovitz’s images of Aretha Franklin performing in 1971, as well as shots of the same event taken by Jim Marshall, the rock photographer who died this year.
Warner Music traces its corporate lineage back to 1811 through its ownership of the music publisher Warner Chappell, whose business then was selling sheet music and pianos. Among the finds is a black-and-white photo of a Chappell piano being delivered to Buckingham Palace.
More recent materials include drawings by Maurice Sendak, the children’s illustrator, who once produced cover art for Elektra Records; a hand-written history of Atlantic Records by its Turkish-American co-founder Ahmet Ertegun; and recording contracts for some titans of American music, like Ms. Franklin and Ray Charles. Before the Internet, photography was so much a part of selling music that record companies spared little expense to hire photographers to shoot album covers and document a band’s work.
Jac Holzman, who founded Warner’s Elektra Records 60 years ago, documented the artistic process at every stage. “We were all adept at photography,” Mr. Holzman said. “Any employee who would be at a session was given a camera.” Lisa Tanner, hired as a photographer by Atlantic in the late 1970s when she was just 17, hit the road with bands like the Rolling Stones. “You just sort of hung out,” she said, “and waited for a moment to happen.”