There's a High-Security Vault of 100 Million Photos Inside a Mountain

Take a tour of the refrigerated photo vault preserving film in a former Pennsylvania mine.

May 1 2014, 6:57pm
Image: Screenshot from The Invisible Photograph's Underground: The Corbis Image Vault

The great irony of film photography preservation is that, despite advancing storage and restoration technology, photographs and motion pictures will still inevitably decompose. In the case of the Corbis image vault, housed in the former Iron Mountain mine in Boyers, Pennsylvania, the film's life should be extended to about 2,000 years. At the vault, a near religious reverence is paid to the analog original. But, to what end? 

In The Invisible Photograph's recent documentary, Underground: The Corbis Image Vault, the filmmakers and interview subjects obscure the vault's real purpose. Imaging researcher Henry Wilhelm, who visits the vault, makes a big deal out of how Bill Gates' purchase of Corbis initially worried him, believing the tech giant would simply digitize the originals, then allow them to decompose. Wilhelm talks about his surprise when he learned Gates also treasured Corbis's original analog photographs. 

The filmmakers then switch gears, fixing their camera on Corbis employees who talk about the vault's digitization efforts. This is all well and good until one of Corbis's employees, Leslie Stauffer, states the obvious: digital photographs live on hard drives and servers, and if hard drives fail, then the photos vanish. I'd be willing to bet almost everybody has experienced this digital vanishing in one form or another, whether their laptop or smartphone dies, taking all photos with it. And, not to be too dystopian, but if this electrified civilization collapses, there go the digital archives as well. 

So, in whatever format, the photograph is far more ephemeral than we can imagine. At one point, Cerbis's digital imaging coordinator, Bethany Boarts, expresses a belief that there will be a movement back to analog photography. Maybe so. We've certainly seen something like this in mp3 versus vinyl music consumption trends. It sure would be nice for film archivists if multiple formats continue to exist in this digital age. 

Perhaps the future of analog photography will be found in creating film that can be preserved far longer in its original format. But, even then, this photographic technology will have a shelf life, which is an apt metaphor for life on this planet in general. Everything is ephemeral. And, yet, we cling to the frozen moments, believing we might preserve ourselves in the process like a planet full of Dorian Grays.