The Coolest Place For Bill Gates to Store His 15 Million Famous and Historically Important Photographs

Corbis Iron Mountain Cold Storage Facility - Huge wall of storage drawers
The Corbis collection inside Iron Mountain, the 150 acre cold storage facility in Boyers, Pennsylvania. © CBS

If you're having problems just coming up with a suitable place to safely store your family's photo collection, then think what it would be like storing the 15 million photographs, negatives and glass plates that make up this Corbis collection!

PopPhoto recently posted this video from CBS “The Early Show” that gives us a rare look inside of Iron Mountain, a 150 acre maximum security cold storage facility (vault) 220 feet below ground in Boyers, Pennsylvania in what used to be a limestone mine. These photos that are stored in a part of this space go back to the 19th century — 150 years — covering celebrities, athletes, presidents and iconic historical moments.

Take a look at this fascinating 6 minutes of video:

 © CBS “The Early Show” / Problems playing video? try here


I've seen this video several times now and every time I watch it, I think the same thing — I'm so glad someone is looking out for these photos!

If you didn't catch it, 4:00 minutes into the video, Ken Johnston, the chief historian and archivist that oversees the collection, says that 99% of the collection is made up of images where the photographer who took them is unknown.

Doesn't that almost seem hard to believe!?

Some of us can hardly take care of our own collections made up of maybe only several thousand photos. But here are 13+ million photographs that have been orphaned, and if all goes well, according to Ken they now have the chance of lasting for thousands of years.

Origin of This Corbis Collection

Bill Gates founded the company Interactive Home Systems in 1989, which was later renamed Corbis (Latin for “wicker basket”), because he believed the future of artwork in people's homes would be a revolving display of images. The company would eventually “beam” great art works of human history to large television monitors decorating our walls.

While this technology was being developed, Corbis began acquiring the rights to millions of these images. They also license them for a fee to publishing, television and film companies who need specific images for their work.

The Tonight Show Treatment

A little side note here that might interest some. The first time I heard about the storage of masters in old mines was when I found out the resting place for all of the surviving videotape masters for “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” Twenty or so years of the thirty year run of this show are safely archived in a salt mine 650 feet below ground in Hutchinson, Kansas.

I was also very happy to learn — the huge fan I was of this show when I was growing up — that all 3,300 hours of these Tonight Show videotapes have been digitized. So hopefully, someday, us fans will be able to get a hold of some more DVD box sets!

Or even better, how about re-running The Tonight Show every weekday at 11:30 p.m. on TV Land!?

Never-ending Deterioration

In “The Top 13 Reasons Why You Should Already Be Scanning Your Photo Collection,” I mentioned deterioration as a serious motivator. Time just won't stop for the aging process.

At 3:34 minutes into the video you saw how even well-cared for photos are almost ruined. This should be a wake-up call to any of us who are still dragging our feet to start digitizing our collection.

Deteriorating negative in Ken Johnston's hands
Ken Johnston holding a deteriorating negative “where the plastic base is literally turning to vinegar.” (3:32 min)  © CBS
Cracked Glass Negative for "Lunch atop a Skyscraper, 1932"
The glass negative for the famous “Lunch atop a Skyscraper, 1932” is now cracked in many places! (3:46 min)  © CBS

Considering how cautious I have become with my own collection, I thought it was almost surprising that Ken doesn't feel it's necessary to wear protective gloves when handling these historically important negatives and prints. Are finger oils and prints not a concern this far below ground? Or maybe he was concerned they would make him look dainty on camera. 😉

Who “Owns” History?

What I especially enjoyed was the discussion at the end of the video between the two anchors. If you didn't watch the video, it was about the controversy with some with how much of this collection was purchased by the billionaire Bill Gates, and was then moved from New York and stuffed down in this 45 degree underground vault in the middle of nowhere.

Some of the worry was probably that these historical artifacts may never see the light of day. And I think a lot of that went away when they saw how much of it was being digitized and given access to by the public. And when things are digitized, quite often it actually means more access than before because of searchability and more convenient access.

But, I think the real remaining uneasiness comes down to a more fundamental concern and that is:

No matter how much credit Corbis deserves for preserving such an important collection, should any one company really have the right to “own” and control this much history?

What do you think? I would love to hear your thoughts.


Are You Ready to Get Serious With Your Photo Collection?

Join 10,280+ people enjoying the exclusive newsletter, tutorials, occasional blog updates, and tips and tricks you won’t find anywhere else on this website sent right to your inbox.

Subscribe by email to new comments without commenting
Notify of

oldest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments