The business of Marilyn


Photography restoration business The Archives discusses the future of the medium

Editor’s note: This is a continuation of the article “Restoring Marilyn,” which can be found under the Special Series Archive, here.

With the release of its new book “The Essential Marilyn by Milton H. Greene,” Florence-based The Archives is bringing the art of photographer Milton H. Greene to the masses.

The business, which is run by Milton’s son Joshua Greene, has been restoring the famed photographer’s hundreds of thousands of photographs for years. With the help of Greene’s employees James Penrod, Shawn Penrod, Rob Welles and Stephen Jones, the photographs have been meticulously restored to their original glory.

The business is a cross section of art and commerce, and has created debate among its employees about what constitutes art, how it is distributed and displayed, the film industry, if photography is actually art and what the future of photography will become.

“It’s a tough business,” Greene said.

Milton’s photographs of legendary stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood have become iconic images. Marilyn Monroe. Frank Sinatra. Maria Callas. The photographs can be seen throughout establishments in Florence like City Lights Cinemas and Waterfront Depot.

While photographs have thrilled film devotees for decades, questions about the importance of these pictures are being raised. Are the days of classic icons like Monroe numbered?

“Future generations won’t care about pictures of Marilyn Monroe or Frank Sinatra,” Greene said. “That kind of thing is probably going to fade away.”

In the old studio system, stars like Monroe were under long-term contracts. Humphrey Bogart was exclusive to Warner Brothers, unless the studio heads loaned him out to other studios. The image of the stars was just as much a commodity to the system as the films they were in. Therefore, the studios were extraordinarily careful as to how the stars were portrayed to the public.

But since the late 1960s and early ’70s, as the studio systems began to break down, actors became free agents, and their carefully manicured public portrayals were diminished. The public knows Bruce Willis and Kathleen Turner more for red carpet photographs and stills from their films than studio shoots.

Compared to the Golden Age of Hollywood, stars themselves have been marginalized. In the 1930s, people would see a Clark Gable picture solely because it had Clark Gable.

For the most part, modern audiences choose films for what they are about, not who is in them. “Wonder Woman” is not popular because it stars Gal Godot and Chris Pine, but because it’s about DC Comics’ Wonder Woman.

Because of these reasons, it’s doubtful high art collectors will clamor for pictures of Robert Downey Jr. or Jessica Chastain to grace their walls anytime soon, The Archives believes.

While stars like Jennifer Lawrence do have professional studio shoots, they are dwarfed by the extraordinary volume of paparazzi photographs that fill the internet.

“Everybody has a camera now,” Shawn, office manager for The Archives, said.

Shawn continued, “And a camera on them at all times. When you see a picture of something, there’s going to be a hundred different versions of that picture at every single angle that everybody has their phones out. Everybody thinks they’re a photographer. For news, it’s great, but it does change the way pictures are taken now. Pictures aren’t special anymore.”

This begs the question, are any photographs special in the way Monroe’s are? Particularly when it comes to the photograph hanging on the wall?

“Does the digital image cheapen the overall value of the image because of its commonality and availability?” Jones asked. He is one of two restoration technicians for the business. “The printed image is like a substantial thing, an object. A piece of art. The digital screen is transitory. Does the general consumer want more than just a transitory image?”

This is something Shawn could answer.

“I collected baseball cards, but they’ve changed where there’s also digital cards that you trade and collect,” he said. “Real money is paid for these rare digital baseball cards. To my son, that digital baseball card means the same, or more, than the old-fashioned cardboard card he has in his hand.

“The new generation might not care about a print on the wall. They care more about the picture on the phone.”

Online digital images represent one of the biggest battlegrounds for The Archives. While it frequently put its photographs online for promotion and educational purposes, unauthorized uploads can become a huge drain on its resources, both through loss of sales and hunting down images.

“Policing is an ongoing nightmare,” Greene said. “Asia is notorious with Alibaba.”

Alibaba is China’s version of Ebay, combined with Amazon.com. It also sells knock-off prints of Milton’s work.

“Every time I go there, I’ll spend a whole day,” Greene said. “I’ll find at least 150 infringements, but I can’t do anything about it. Alibaba won’t take them down. You can’t go after them like you can Ebay, because that’s protected by American law. The law in China is that they don’t care about copyright infringement and intellectual property.”

If Alibaba retailers sell the unauthorized prints outside China, Greene could use international copyright infringement laws against the sellers.

“But if you’re making it in China and selling it in China, it’s a closed market. And I see Marilyn Monroe prints in lots, minimum orders of 140, for $45 a piece. What am I going to do?” he asked.

Those struggles focus on physical prints sold online. But what about photographs that are downloaded to websites?

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 was supposed to protect artists from having their work posted without permission. The act allowed for media to be used for education or information, but it barred websites from using copyrighted work for commercial purposes. That was the intent, anyway.

For example, an informational Google search of Monroe pulls up thousands of online photographs of the icon. But when the picture is clicked on?

“A company’s website is embedded into it. You click on it, and it’s a hardware store. Or it’s selling sweaters,” Greene said. “There was a guy who had over 100 YouTube videos with Milton’s pictures in it all put to music. It was the worst music I ever heard, which offended me even more.”

The Archives had that video pulled, but as one goes down, dozens more pop up.

“There’s only so much you can do,” Shawn said. “You have to do the cost/benefit analysis. Is this worth my time? So, you try to pick the most egregious ones.”

That’s not to say that The Archives is against all uses of Milton’s images.

“We’re very close with the Marilyn fan base,” Greene said. “That’s been very important to us. All those fan sites that people have, use our pictures with our graces.”

All they ask is that those websites give credit to Milton and The Archives, and people are generally more than happy to do it.

Another problem is artists stealing Milton’s work and incorporating it into their own art, what Greene calls “derivative work.” One of the greatest offenders is Richard Prince, a visual artist who sets photos — most of which are not his own — into frames similar to those seen on Instagram.

“This guy is a scumbag,” Greene said.

Shawn explained.

“Basically, he did an exhibition of all these Instagram photos. It’s just the Instagram posts with the comments. And he sells them as his art.”

Instagram is an online application where users can share pictures. The problem with Instagram, Greene believes, is that once someone puts a photograph on the application, the photographer gives up their copyright. While this may be acceptable when photographers put their own images on the application, people are putting other works on the site, like Milton’s.

“Prince has taken the ownership of photographs because it was on Instagram,” Shawn said. “He thinks he’s manipulating them enough to get outside the law. And he basically dared you to sue him. One photographer was not happy about it. Somebody put a picture of his print on Instagram. And so, he’s trying to say that, ‘I didn’t put it, somebody else did. So, I didn’t give this permission.’ That’s the angle he’s going after.”

“Am I going to put Milton’s pictures on Instagram?” Greene asked. “No way.”

These issues lead The Archives to wonder what the future of photography is in an online world. The question comes up with a company named Corbis.

“Bill Gates is the founder of Corbis,” Greene said. “He believed everybody was going to have flat screens on their walls instead of framed pictures, and they would put digital imagery in. And they wanted multiple images to be able to stream to change out your artwork. When you think about it, streaming, like Netflix, is most of the way people entertain themselves now.”

But does digital imagery trump the tactile nature of printed medium?

“There’s a certain level of permanence with having a good quality print on the wall,” Welles, The Archives’ other restoration technician, said. “Whereas, if you’re just looking at something on a screen, you’re talking about technology that is always changing. The prints we’re making here are good for several generations before there’s degradation. I think there’s that aspect of it that will continue to exist. At some point, we’ll get through the science fiction of it all, with walls that are images.”

And there may be a backlash to the technology, which has yet to fully catch on with the public.

“You’re going to see a lot of hipsters and young people wanting to get back into the darkroom,” Shawn said. “There’s always going to be people that want to put a print on the wall.”

While that technology’s future is still to be written, Corbis did create a fundamental shift in how photographs are purchased and distributed.

Corbis, which was later bought out by competitor Getty Images, began purchasing the rights to huge collections of photographs for the project. It also used the collections to sell to traditional print publications.

“They became the Walmart of licensing and they pushed the photographers out of the business, as far as the price and the value of buying photography to put in magazines,” Greene said. “They made deals for a lump sum, annual fee. People Magazine will pay $25,000 to Corbis. And they’ll have access to millions of images throughout the year at no additional expense. And it makes sense if you’re going to be a publication that needs that imagery. If you break it down, you’re paying $100 a picture. So, when they come to people like us, where we’re asking $5,000 for a picture or $1,500 for a page, they say, I’ll pay you $150. Well, that’s fine, but if you want an historic picture of Marilyn Monroe, you’re going to have to pay more”.

Greene said the business has both gotten harder and changed since he created The Archives.

“Even with the release of brand new pictures in our book, I had to surrender to getting publicity versus getting the money. The exposure became more important than that money,” Greene said.

“The Essential Marilyn” costs $65 retail. If The Archives was to sell the prints individually, it could have made hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“I’m happy to report that we just got our first royalty statement, and we have paid for the printing of the book already, which we expected it would take 6 months to a year,” Greene said.

However, that’s through the sales of a book. How do the prints that The Archives create make it out to the general public? According to Greene, there’s two primary areas where his fine art prints are used.

“There’s the sale of fine art photography in a gallery,” Greene said. “The other place is exhibitions, where the focus is to show the work, not to purchase the work. We’re doing a show next week down in Beverly Hills. We have 15 pieces down there. These prints vary between $7,000 to $15,000 a piece.”

Those photographs are for sale, but sometimes, galleries don’t expect to sell anything. They just want people to come to their establishment.

“We just did a show in Lisbon where they showed 60 prints,” Greene said. “You do press, they talk about it, they come see it. The owners of the store paid us to have this draw to bring people in.”

Unfortunately, high art photographs are becoming the purview of the rich.

Greene said the economy changed in 2009, essentially taking disposable income from the hands of the  working middle class.

“That market completely disappeared,” he said. “What’s happened in the art market has become only for the rich. The people who are going to drop $70,000 for a piece of art. I’m in the bottom of that market, charging $7,000 to $15,000, which is a lot for photography. Especially posthumous photography. So, we’re offering them, very few, for you to have something special. Something that brings you pleasure and you can brag to your friends. And it all goes through galleries now.”

But should fine art prints belong solely to the rich?

“It’s not a good thing,” Greene said. “I would like to see more people have money in their pocket. I’d like to see middle class people have more money to spend on themselves. That’s really the problem. Everybody’s working harder but the paycheck is not getting any bigger. You go hobnob with the rich, it’s a whole other world.”

“But if you start bringing the price point, it brings down the price of the entire market,” Jones said. “If you raise the price, people will see it as an exclusive item. Every time I dropped my prices to get more of the market, it hasn’t benefited me. The times I raised it up, I got clients I would never have seen before because they feel it’s more exclusive.”

But that exclusivity, along with changing technological interests, may be pushing future generations out of the market all together.

“I don’t own any limited-edition prints,” James, the youngest of The Archives crew, said. “I’ve never owned anything of that caliber for financial reasons. I’ve never had the art, eye sort of thing. I grew up on video games and TV. Art wasn’t always in my life. I’m much more of a digital person.”

“We’re testing that market right now,” Greene said. “We just did the show in Oslo and we sold three prints where I wish we sold 20 prints. And I’m evaluating the price point.”

In addition, shows often take a commission of 60 percent of the sale price.

 “I’m stuck in a middle of a hard place. We’re doing all the work, I’m taking all the costs and the labor, and I’m giving 60 percent away. It’s a tough business.”

That tough business has led Greene and The Archives to reevaluate what their true purpose is.

“The dance is getting tired for me,” Greene said. “I want to consolidate Marilyn. I’m trying to sell her off for enough money that I won’t have to worry.”

The Monroe collection has been financially good to Greene over the years, generating the bulk of The Archives’ revenue. There are a few stars that are periodically in demand (Audrey Hepburn, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland) but the iconic images of Monroe have been the driving force.

The collection only constitutes a fraction of Milton’s work, holding 4,000 photographs. Greene has an entire room filled with the rest of Milton’s work, packed to the ceiling with hundreds of thousands of photographs.

“There’s enough to do here,” he said.

And this isn’t even touching Greene’s own photography, which takes up another room at The Archives. While Greene did not give an exact number of how many photographs he’s produced over his lifetime, he did state that he’s only scanned 150 pictures of his own work into the company’s system.

The goal is to package the Monroe photographs, along with other merchandising rights Greene holds for her, and sell them to one bidder, like Getty Images.

“I would like to be comfortable financially so I could have a modified version of the company running for a period of time,” Greene said.

He didn’t give an exact price for the Monroe collection, but he hopes the funds will allow The Archives crew to begin restoring the rest of Milton’s work.

Which begs the question, what is the importance of The Archive’s work? Is it fine art, or is something more indelible?

“The most important thing is preserving the history of pictures,” James said. “I don’t see it as selling limited editions. It’s more about preserving the past, to bring it back to where it was.”