The New York TimesThe Lively Morgue

A Treasure House of Photographs

You’ve already looked at the pictures, haven’t you?

Of course you have. Why would anyone come to Tumblr to read a long-winded introduction?

But as long as you’re here, let’s agree that these photographs give lie to the idea that The New York Times is not a picture newspaper. While it’s true that The Times didn’t always use photos to best advantage, it was in the game beginning in 1896, when it first published an illustrated Sunday magazine. By the time of the First World War, readers were seeing extraordinary images every week of the conflict ravaging Europe. Early in the 20th century, The Times even had its own picture agency, Wide World Photos.

An undated photograph showing New York Times employees tidying negatives in the morgue.
The New York Times

It was an era of bold global exploration to the North and South Poles. Aviation was evolving at breathtaking speed. Russia was in revolt. Pictures. New York took its place as a global cultural capital. The world was again convulsed in a war that ended with the atomic bomb. More pictures. Civil rights were won on the battleground, while explorers turned their sights to the Moon, Mars and beyond. Pictures and more pictures.

How many? We don’t know. Our best guess is five million to six million prints and contact sheets (each sheet, of course, representing many discrete images) and 300,000 sacks of negatives, ranging in format size from 35 millimeter to 5 by 7 inches — at least 10 million frames in all. The picture archive also includes 13,500 DVDs, each storing about 4.7 gigabytes worth of imagery. When the Museum of Modern Art set out to exhibit the highlights of the Times archive in 1996, it dispatched four curators. They spent nine months poring over 3,000 subjects, working with two Times editors, one of whom spent a year on the project. In the end, they estimated that they’d seen only one-quarter of the total.

If we posted 10 new archival pictures every weekday on Tumblr, just from our print collection, we wouldn’t have the whole thing online until the year 3935.

During a visit to The Times in 1959, Marilyn Monroe inspected news clippings in the morgue, accompanied by Lester Markel, center, the Sunday editor. The New York Times

That’s a bit too ambitious. Instead, we’ll be dipping in and publishing several photographs each week, some of which will be available for purchase and some of which will be accompanied by a more extensive back story posted on the Lens blog. As we do so, we’ll gradually digitize at least the tip of the iceberg of this enormous trove, guaranteeing its continued utility and accessibility in the future.

We’re eager to share historical riches that have been locked away from public view, and have been awaiting a platform like Tumblr that makes it easy to do so. We hope you’ll enjoy the serendipity of discovery, that you’ll know something of the thrill we feel when we unlock the door of the morgue and walk into a treasure house made of filing cabinets, index cards, manila folders and more 8-by-10s than anyone can count.

A note about back stories: to enhance the photos’ value as artifacts and research tools, we’ll present an image of the reverse side of each print. In many cases, you’ll get to see how often the photo was used, in what context and at what size; the information provided by the photographer; and the information that made it into the published caption. An annotated reverse side of a photo from the morgue appears below, offering some clues about the kinds of notations you’ll see over and over again as you explore the Lively Morgue.

Caption Information about this January 9, 1930 image was provided by the Philadelphia bureau of Wide World Photos and glued to the back of the print.
Agency The stamp of Wide World Photos, a photography agency The Times created in 1914. It was sold to the Associated Press in 1941.
Payment This $3 notation likely describes the fee paid to the freelance photographer.
Caption Code P17908, written in pencil above the name Myers, was the Wide World Photos caption code. Myers may have been the last name of the photographer.
Subject Code The New York Times subject code 5011-L signified that this photo could be categorized in the morgue under “U.S., Industry, Beer, Stills.”
Retired Subject Code Sometimes subject codes from an older cataloguing system were listed and then crossed out.
Mid-Week Pictorial From 1914 to 1936, The Times published the Mid-Week Pictorial, a photo periodical sold separately from the newspaper. This image appeared in the issue of January 25, 1930 on page 18. Its exact size is noted.
Published Caption The photo caption that was published in the newspaper has been cut out and affixed to the back of the print.
Sequence Using blue grease pencil, the photo indexer has noted that this was the third picture in a series of three shots that were published. The word “service” indicates that the image was taken by an agency freelancer.
A Second Look This May 13, 1935 stamp indicates that the print was viewed again five years later. It was not republished. If it had been, there would be another caption affixed here.

Finally, a word about “morgue”: The Times’s picture library was originally part of the art department, not the news department. Once it was consolidated with the newsroom clipping file, however, it came to be called the morgue. Explanations differ as to the origins of that name, but it’s safe to say that the clippings were originally biographical and kept close at hand in case a subject dropped dead around deadline, requiring an instant obituary. Whatever the case, any morgue that includes a bus-sized, helium-filled Bullwinkle hovering over Times Square is a very lively morgue indeed.