A treasure trove of pictures in a wooden suitcase

17.07.2020A treasure trove of pictures in a wooden suitcase

Karen Tieth is the director of the bpk picture agency, the central media service provider for all SPK institutions. Here she explains exactly how the bpk picture agency works, how to unlock the potential of photographic bequests, and recalls how even a small wooden suitcase can contain fascinating objects.

The interview was conducted by Jonas Dehn.

Karen Tieth
Karen Tieth © SPK / Jonas Dehn

Ms. Tieth, what exactly does the bpk picture agency do?

Karen Tieth: On the one hand, we are an image archive with the task of preserving cultural heritage. Our stock comprises over 12 million pictures from bequests and lifetime gifts from important photographers and publishers. The bpk picture agency thus maintains one of the most extensive and important photographic archives in Germany. Our collection concentrates on historical photographs of contemporary events. 

On the other hand, we provide inter-departmental services for the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz (Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation): the bpk picture agency handles all commercial image inquiries as the central point of contact on behalf of the Foundation’s institutions. Since we deal with a very large number of inquiries as well as related issues such as legal clarification, we significantly relieve the workload on the Foundation’s institutions in this area. In addition, we assist them with the procurement of visual material for their own productions and we advise them on questions relating to the use of images. As a picture agency, we also represent other national and international cultural institutions that wish to market their pictures commercially via our image portal. 

The foundations of the bpk picture agency were laid in 1966 with the purchase of Hermann Handke’s “historical picture archive.” The Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz, as it was then known, was meant to finance itself from the start by charging fees for licenses to use the images. The demand from professional customers for images from the cultural sector grew rapidly and so the picture archive took over the handling of all commercial inquiries for the entire SPK. At the same time, it progressively expanded the range of items on offer by cooperating with other cultural institutions. The visuals industry lacked a central facility that could serve as a one-stop shop for important objects from culture and science, despite the strong need for one because many users don’t have any idea of which museum to search if they want to use certain images. Since 2017, the bpk picture agency has received financial support from the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and Media for the purpose of expanding the “national image portal for cultural institutions.” The portfolio has been continually enlarged and the bpk picture agency has continued to develop into a commercial agency using state-of-the-art technology. 

With its special mixture of authorized, high-quality images from many different cultural institutions (more than two hundred in Germany and abroad), as well as the contemporary documentary photographs that we offer on our portal, the bpk picture agency has created an almost unique selling point in Germany. In total, we now have almost 1 million images online, which anyone is free to browse. You only have to register with us if you want to download the images directly for commercial use. 

Photography by Abisag Tüllmann
Photography by Abisag Tüllmann © bpk / Abisag Tüllmann

As an image archive, you also look after a number of bequests and lifetime gifts. How do you handle their contents? 

We keep the valuable bequests and lifetime gifts in the Friedrichshagen storage depot, where we can store them properly, in accordance with current conservation requirements. As far as possible, we work with and on the objects in order to make them accessible to the public. For example, we have done some great collaborative work with the Abisag Tüllmann Foundation. In this project, the estate of the photographer Abisag Tüllmann, which is in our keeping, was put in order and made accessible. 

She was an important photographer in the art and theater worlds who also recorded contemporary events, and she worked for large, well-known publishers in what was then West Germany. With the deputy head of the bpk picture agency, Christina Stehr, as project manager, a total of over 80,000 pictures (b/w prints and color transparencies) were viewed, over 55,000 original prints were repacked, and a selection of the images was digitized and indexed. To assist researchers who will be busying themselves with these works in the future, more than 8,500 contact sheets were digitized and over 25,000 digital working images of the original prints were created. Before the end of this year, we will be launching a website dedicated to Tüllmann, which will provide comprehensive information and background material relating to her life and work. This will not be commercial in nature, being aimed primarily at scholars, historians, historians of photography, and others with a general interest in photography. 

Similarly, we have a project with the S. Fischer Foundation to process the estate of the photographer Leonore Mau. Here, too, the long term plan is to make its contents known to the public on a dedicated website. 

These two cases show what you can make of an estate if the necessary financial means are there. Without generous funding from the Abisag Tüllmann Foundation and the S. Fischer Foundation, neither of these projects would have been possible. So far we have depended on receiving support like this, because we are a directorate, the only one in the Foundation. We have to finance ourselves one hundred percent from our own income. This affects all of our outlay, including IT, personnel, material, and even – so far – building maintenance. We generate our income from the fees charged to issue licenses for the commercial use of our images. Any surplus may flow into tasks such as developing the agency, maintaining the archive, and processing estates, but usually there is not much money left. Nonetheless, we aim to make the items that have been entrusted to us more available to scholars and researchers – and that includes digital means of access. 

Photography by Leonore Mau
Photography by Leonore Mau © bpk / S. Fischer Stiftung / Leonore Mau

How do bequests and lifetime gifts find their way to you?

On the one hand, we monitor the photography market ourselves, we keep in contact with many photographers and agencies, and we are very well connected through various working groups on photography and through archive networks. Many older photographers are faced with the challenge that for most of their careers, they used analog technology, so they have a large, bulky archive to store, and don’t know what to do with it. Their heirs are often equally overwhelmed, which means that many archives are at risk of simply being thrown away. Many of them approach us of their own accord, because we already look after many important bequests and lifetime gifts, have a very good storage facility with optimal conditions and, above all, have made it our task to preserve this photographic heritage for posterity, as important testimony to historical events. In addition, we ourselves approach selected photographers. 

Black-and-white photography by Fide Struck
Photography by Fide Struck © bpk / Fide Struck / Slg. Thomas Struck

Whether we accept a bequest or gift depends on a variety of criteria. We might ask what condition the material is in, how extensive the archive is, whether there are already finding aids, and whether the pictures are captioned. And another thing that is very important to us: what is the legal situation? Which copyrights, property rights and, if applicable, personal rights are involved? We also consider it crucial that the pictures are of high aesthetic and technical quality and possess historical significance. And finally, the subjects have to be suitable for our collection: cultural history and contemporary history from the beginnings of photography to the 1990s. 

Sometimes we take on huge estates, occupying several meters of shelf space, which contain not only photographs but also, in many cases, related material such as books for which the photos were used, correspondence, and personal collectibles.

Last year, in contrast, we had a situation where everything fitted in a large wooden suitcase. The son of photographer Fide Struck – previously completely unknown – had kept the suitcase containing his father’s glass negatives in his apartment for years before opening it and taking a closer look. He was amazed by what he found. Mr. Struck then came to us with the contents of the suitcase and asked whether we were interested in them. When we looked at the work, we immediately realized that it was an especially vivid record of the times and comprised new, surprising material.

Shortly after we had agreed to accept the estate as a donation, the Altona Museum in Hamburg, together with the F.C. Gundlach Foundation, expressed interest in producing an exhibition. For this, motifs with a particular connection to Hamburg were selected from our stock: photos of the stock exchange, the fish market, and vegetable farmers in the surrounding area. The exhibition Fide Struck. Fish – Vegetables – Stock Exchange is a great success. Together with the photographer’s son, we are trying to find a venue in Berlin where the interesting Berlin photos from the estate can be exhibited. It just goes to show that quantity is not always the decisive factor: this estate fits in a wooden suitcase, yet it is an incredible treasure trove of pictures. 

What happens to bequests and lifetime gifts after you accept them?

We take the material to our storage depot in Friedrichshagen. All of the historical bequests and lifetime gifts owned by the bpk picture agency are stored there under optimal climatic conditions and with the best possible protection. We have set up our own photo restoration workshop there, so that we can repair damaged photos if necessary. After we receive an archive, we take a basic inventory and sort its contents, at the same time creating initial, very basic finding aids and assessing the overall condition. Depending on the resources and aids available, the next step is to process the contents, selecting relevant motifs for indexing and digitizing.

For us, the storage depot in Friedrichshagen is a place where we can make an active contribution to science and research. We want to expand this in the future. Among the historical sciences, the area of visual history is developing an ever stronger profile and is growing in substance. For many years, a photograph was valued somewhat less than written material as a historical source. That has changed a lot in the last few years. We see this as a great opportunity to publicize the material that we have acquired and to demonstrate the potential of the archive. There are still many treasures to be found. 

We also work constantly with the Museum für Fotografie (Museum of Photography) to enlarge our collections. As regards the subject matter, we have arranged to concentrate on different areas: artistic photography is generally collected by the Museum of Photography, while we focus on press photography and documentary photography. We keep in constant contact and often consult each other when material is offered. From time to time, there are also projects that use both the artistic and the documentary photographs in the SPK collections as part of interesting exhibitions, such as "Berlin in the 1918/19 Revolution – Photography, Film, Entertainment Culture" at the Museum für Fotografie, which included many items from our collection. 

We have also organized beautiful exhibitions with other museums, such as the Willy Brandt House. One of them was about the photographer Digne Meller Marcovicz, whose estate is also in our keeping.

Not only do you put together exhibitions from your rich stock of images, you are also involved in books.

We have had publication projects with publishers for many years, for example with Edition Braus, which publishes beautiful books on the subject of Berlin every year. In very close collaboration, we jointly seek to identify interesting topics that our stock relates to. In recent years, for example, this has led to books such as Abgefahren on the subject of mobility and Unter Strom on the process of electrification in Berlin. We provide the visual material for these projects and sometimes take part in the editorial contributions. It’s a highly enjoyable partnership.

We have also been able to produce many books in collaboration with publishers who are interested in the work of individual photographers, with monographs, for example, on Bernd Heyden, Konrad Hoffmeister, and Willy Römer. Producing publications in cooperation with book publishers is a good way of drawing attention to the treasures in our collections. It enables us to make scholars and researchers aware that there is a wealth of material for further research in the image archive of the bpk picture agency.

Cover of the book titled Abgefahren
© Edition Braus
Cover of the book „Unter Strom"
Cover "Unter Strom" © Edition Braus

You have been in charge of the bpk picture agency since the beginning of 2019. How was the first year for you?

The year passed in a flash. It shows that we face a very wide range of exciting tasks. I was very lucky to encounter such a wonderful, highly motivated team at the bpk picture agency. Of course, that makes my job easier. The employees are rightly very proud to offer a professional service for the Foundation and for our customers. We have all made it our mission to serve as an extended signboard for our institutions by advertising our museums or the Staatsbibliothek, for example, on the portal. We all share an ambition to market the images in interesting ways: for example, through our social media activities, gallery presentations on our website, and our newsletter. Every image that ends up in print with the SMB or SBB credited as the source is also an advertisement for the image collection. 

I still need to get used to the extensive documentation requirements and the longer processes that public service regulations entail. These are new to me, but I try to cultivate a positive attitude towards this framework and to organize the day-to-day work with due care, creativity, and humor. Apart from that, I feel privileged to be working in an environment that has to do with culture and its preservation, where you deal with lots of interesting people and have a variety of tasks. 

Another thing I really like is that, because we provide inter-departmental services, I have quickly come into contact with a large number of colleagues within the Foundation. This is naturally one of the advantages of my function. I have met with a very positive reception, I have been given a lot of support, and I have had many stimulating conversations. At the moment, a new look is being taken at many things and changes are being set in motion. It’s a very good time to have joined and to be playing an active part in the transformation.

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