I’m sitting in the Cherry Hill Diner trying to gather my thoughts about Friday’s visit to the NYT Morgue. (I wish it were Olga’s Diner – a moment of silence, please.)
What I’m left with is a smattering of impressions and random facts, and some marginal photos (digital cameras don’t have a setting for “horrid fluorescent light conditions”, as far as I know). I basically got to follow Roth around some of the time, and putter about the room on my own the rest of the time. I’m sure he was a bit disappointed that I didn’t have a laundry list of insightful questions to ask him, but 1) I’m not a journalist (just naturally nosy), and 2) I was working on 2 hours of sleep and had been travelling for 12 hours or so. I felt fortunate just to be there and soak it all in. Disclaimer – I didn’t take notes while I was there, it seemed a bit rude, so I could even have some facts wrong. If so, mea culpa. Some things that stand out follow.
I keep saying photography “archives”, because I don’t really know what other term to use. Roth, however, was quite specific about the fact that the NYT Morgue is in no way an “archive” in the traditional sense – they are running a business, they hang onto all the clippings and photos for potential future use and reference, but their objective is not preservation. He doesn’t consider himself an archivist – those professionals undergo training on how to preserve documents and such, while he basically “maintains” the files that are there. The system is (theoretically) quite basic, and according to him it doesn’t take any special skills to manage it. When I asked if the routine task of tracking down images was rendered more thrilling since you’d never really know what else you’d run into along the way, he agreed. Therein lies the magic, and thus are many hours lost in the twilight zone of the (non)archive.
Roth’s unassuming attitude only endeared him to me all the more. He is indeed a dapper individual, as Claire (from NPR) mentioned – I changed into a dress before heading into the city so as not to look so travel-worn, and I found him in what must be his version of “casual Friday”: pale blue slacks, white linen shirt, white shoes, looking a bit like my conception of an author from the 30s hanging out in a left-bank Paris café. Instant crush, I admit it. He’s lucky I don’t live in NY, or my cheekiness might have extended to a dinner invitation.
Anyway…back to business. Originally the Morgue was the term used to refer to the files of news clippings, but it informally expanded to include the cabinets of photos. My chance to visit was both incredibly special – when I asked if many people had the nerve to call and ask him to visit, he said not really, since the Morgue hasn’t gotten a ton of press over the years – and incredibly normal – since they’re running a business and not an exclusive archive, it’s no big deal for a press nobody to pop in and check things out. I think it was a miracle of timing, personally, since I imagine others will contact him after the NPR story, and his patience for looky-loos may run out – or maybe I just caught him on a day when the idea of hosting a random stranger in his (non)archive seemed appealing. I’ll never know, but I am grateful no matter the reason.
If you’re still with me, this is going to be a long one. While normally I’d post a gallery of thumbnails rather than full photos, I feel a burning need to explain the whys and wherefores of the NYT Morgue, so bear with me. Enjoy your glimpse behind the curtain.
A study in contrasts: the gleaming sign of the NYT new building and the older sign in the NYT Morgue.
The file cabinets with archived news clippings.
The file cabinets with biographical data.
They go back. A ways.
Note the moving label on the cabinet below. Roth said he’d overseen 3 full moves of the files during his tenure at the NYT. They weigh in at 1/2 a million pounds, all-told.
Some specific people have their own drawers. (I didn’t take a photo of the Advanced Obit cabinet, the only one I saw with a padlock on it.)
Some of the card catalog sort of spills over into available space, along with files of I’m not sure what.
But they go back a ways too.
Then there’s the picture card catalog.
Here’s Roth looking up a photo he needed on the prison break from Alcatraz.
Once you’ve looked up the file number in the card catalog, you head to the photo files. They have those shelves you can crank open and shut to save space.
And here are some Alcatraz photos he dug out. Contact sheet, models of fake heads, etc.
Note the back of one photo says “3 Alcatraz convicts cut their way out with spoons.” The backs of the photos are fascinating too – they show who took the photo, when it was used, often the caption is taped on, etc.
Random other cabinets, files, bound editions of the travel section, heaped-up old papers, etc.
Files of photos recently pulled for various requests (including Die Hard and English Royalty – strange bedfellows).
Photos of the Queen as a child and British royalty in India (front and back).
Photos of the Queen’s gigantic “dollhouse” (which according to the back of one photo included “real bottles of Johnnie Walker”).
Ephemera heaven around the Morgue.
Last but not least – blurry images of how the Morgue used to operate in its hey-day.
From a staff of 12 full-time and 8 part-time, Jeff Roth is now the lone (non)archivist of the entire collection of clippings and 5-6 million photographic prints. Mind-blowing.