Getty Images is the largest commercial image library in the world. Many of the defining images of the last century – the crash of the Hindenburg, the Apollo moon landings, the first breach of the Berlin Wall – are owned or managed by Getty. These images live in our heads and form a part of our collective memory. Yet often they can only be found in commercial archives, and only accessed by purchasing expensive licenses.
‘A History Of The World According To Getty Images’ is the first outcome of an on-going investigative research project on visual capitalism. It began with the question: why are there so few high-quality archive images freely available online, even though much of the first fifty years of film is now out of copyright? My research process has followed several paths: research into the corporate history of Getty Images, including various past and present controversies around alleged fraudulent assertions of intellectual property and copyright trolling; research into the scope of Getty Images’ newsreel archive through an extensive search of its online catalogue; and research into the provenance of a small number of video clips that I purchased from its catalogue.
Each of these lines of research has begun in a different place but ended with same conclusion: that commercial archives, and often also public archives, routinely fail to respect the legal principle of the public domain. At best, they just ignore it; at worst, they actively circumvent it. For example, as mentioned in the video, many image archives use paywalls to assert de facto ownership over public domain (i.e. out of copyright) images in their collections. Every year, more images become public domain, but most just stay behind paywalls and remain inaccessible to the public.
The appropriation of public domain images by Getty Images and many other archives is a particular issue for video essayists because our work is often built on extant media. Currently, most video essays focus on authored works (especially fiction films) rather than ‘editorial’ archive images. This is partially explainable by individual creators’ interests and by the power of fiction in our cultural imaginary, but it is perhaps also partially explainable by the fact that it is very difficult to access high quality newsreel footage. Funded documentarists may perhaps be able to afford the high cost of licensing media from archives. But video essayists wanting to engage with history must instead look elsewhere, and the most obvious place to find images of the past is in past films. The most accessible of these are fiction films. In this way, we often risk becoming the entertainment industries’ accomplices: they fictionalise the past, and we explore it through their fictionalised images of it.
Accordingly, this video also aims to support the efforts currently taking place within the video essay community to expand our collective gaze beyond popular and canonical films, and to explore how videographic methodologies can be used to engage with the full diversity of past and present audiovisual culture.
Richard Misek is a filmmaker and media scholar. His current research focuses on visual capitalism, the commons, and digital access to arts and culture. He has led grant-funded projects on public space in the metaverse (2022-23), widening access to arts and culture through video streaming (2021-22), immersive nonfiction (2017-18), and the relation between audiovisual essays and artists’ film and video (2015-16). His works have screened at over seventy festivals including Sundance, Rotterdam, Clermont-Ferrand, Hot Docs, and IDFA. He is a Professor in Screen Media at the University of Bergen in Norway, where he currently runs the Film and TV production programme.