Dear Johnson Publishing Company, About Selling Your Photo Archives
I had to write this sternly-worded letter because NAWL!
Dear Johnson Publishing Company,
I read a story in the Chicago Tribune called “Johnson Publishing to sell historic photo archive” and I had to write you a letter because my spirit was bothered. I posted it on Facebook and everyone did a collective *wall slide*. According to that article, you’re considering selling your photo archives to raise some capital for the company. There are 5 million pictures and you’re hoping to get $40 million for them. That is $8 per picture. EIGHT DOLLARS.
Can we talk about this? CAN WE TALK ABOUT THIS? We need to, because this is not ok and I am here to panic about it and ask some questions.
First of all, the value of the entire archive was appraised at $40 million and y’all accepted it? 5 million images of Black icons and Black history, which includes a 1969 Pulitzer Prize winning photo of Coretta Scott King at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral is worth $40 million? Michael Jackson paid $48 million for The Beatles’ music catalogue, which included like 260 of their songs. And 5 million pics that chronicled some of the most memorable moments in 20th century Black history is being put up for less than that? Yup. I’m pretty offended.
Who appraised this collection? Why are they a hater? And why do I feel like this price is basically a dropkick to our legacy? It’s like a clearance sale on our history and I am side-eying everyone involved. This is a literal de-valuing of our history.
Let me move past that for a second and talk about the motive behind this sale. Desiree Rogers, JPC’s CEO is quoted as saying “It’s just sitting here. We really need to monetize that in order to ensure growth in our core businesses.”
“It’s just sitting there.” What are the pictures supposed to be doing instead of “just sitting there?” Should they sing while in the boxes collecting dust? Why are they just sitting there? Why are they hidden? Why are they not in a museum already being displayed for the masses? Why isn’t there a photography exhibit curated by Johnson Publishing Company, charging people to come see moments in time captured award-winning photographers over the years? Why aren’t these pics being used on the EBONY website as a weekly feature? WHY ARE THEY JUST SITTING THERE?
You know what was just “sitting there” too? Brownstones in Brooklyn in 1992. I bet the people who sold those then are pissed right now.
I understand that times are hard, but print has been dying for so many years. It is a well-known fact that those who stay relevant are the ones who adapt and evolve. As someone looking in from afar, I see JPC lagging behind in evolving as a media brand. Jet Magazine already folded their print edition and are now strictly online (which, is fine). EBONY is still printing monthly (thankfully) but I don’t see the magazine pushing the digital presence or the digital presence pushing the magazine. They seem to operate as 2 very different entities. Is there an EBONY iPad app that people can have paid subscriptions to?
Selling something as valuable as your photo archive because of an immediate need for cash feels short-sighted, especially since photos like this will only appreciate with time. Letting them go now for a sudden influx of cash can’t be a good long-term strategy to sustain the company. Because in 5 years, what else will you need to liquidate to stay afloat? PLUS, that archive is worth way more.
I know this was probably not an easy decision for the JPC staff but I have to ask these questions.
Have you tried licensing the images out on a grand scale to a major institution to use, like the Schomburg or the Smithsonian or the DuSable Museum?
Have you tried selling prints of these images so people can hang them up in their houses? I’d also love to rock a tshirt of Eartha Kitt serving FIERCE side-eye. That’s an option.
Have you considered creating a company like Getty, where people can purchase rights to use some of the images?
Do we need to kickstarter y’all some funds? What do you need to stay functioning without relinquishing your rights to these iconic images?
Have you considered partnering with someone like Nichelle Gainer, author of the book Vintage Black Glamour?
I’m just asking because, again, there has to be a way for you to make these pics work for you and generate income for you without letting go of them completely. THERE’S GOTTA BE!
Johnson Publishing Company, I am Keith Sweat begging you not to sell your entire photo archives, especially not for pennies and not to whoever brings you the most money. PLEASE BABY BABY PLEASE! This sucks because Black people already lack ownership of so many things and the idea that one of the biggest Black legacy companies is about to sell such important mementos makes my heart sad.
5 million pictures for $40 million. Again, that is $8 per picture. *wall slides* I wouldn’t be so concerned if I knew it would be sold to another Black-owned entity either. Can our images not go to the highest bidder, but to an entity that will honor them? Can they be owned by people who look like the ones in the pictures? Can we keep this in-house, JPC? I’m so sick of us selling our things to others. SO SICK.
WHY do Black millionaires and Black billionaires of today not create a club or trust where they collect Black art that can then be leased out? And they ALL get the revenue from it collectively? Why do we always get to the point where we’re selling our images and allowing others to control how our faces are used (and abused)? If these pics get sold to a white-owned entity, iSweaterGAWD I’m going to be SO. DAMB. MADDDDD.
Lawd, if they sell it to some corporation who doesn’t give a damb and I see a picture of Dorothy Dandridge hawking mayonnaise, I’ll be forced to give everyone atomic wedgies. Because NAWL.
Desiree Rogers also said: “One of the things that we’ve learned is we need to stick with what we’re good at. We’re writers, we’re creative folks, we produce a magazine … geared toward that African-American experience. Let’s stick as close to that as we can.”
Soooo the reason this sale should make sense is because this isn’t the lane JPC is occupying right now? This all sounds rushed and like you’re hustling backwards, JPC and that’s a shame. Our cultural legacy is worth so much more than $40 million. We cannot keep selling to the highest bidder, and if keeping an organized archive of 5 million pictures is not what JPC is great at, outsource it. Chicago, JPC headquarters, does not have a shortage of resources for this type of thing, with the University of Chicago, the DuSable Museum and with a history that is rich in Black art and culture. I mean, DAMB. If Beyonce can have a full-time archivist, surely JPC can.
There’s another way. There’s got to be, and people are willing to help you figure out what those options are. You can even contact art curator and expert, Janice Bond. She can help you figure out other options. She’s a Black woman who’s worked internationally to curate pieces owned by us. Ask her and others in her field what to do so you can exhaust ALL OTHER possibilities. Because how did we get here? Nobody’s sposed to be here.
We have nice things but this is why we can’t keep them. Please reconsider. Because today’s cash flow is tomorrow’s lost history. This is reducing so much of our history into a monetary transaction and we’ve done that enough. Don’t do it, Miss Celie. It ain’t worth it!
Yours in NOOOOOOOO,