The Morgue Is Alive! Inside the New York Times Photo Archive, Where History Lives On
This story was written and produced in partnership with WNYC.
It is a cramped basement annex, stacked high with metal filing cabinets, full of three-fourths of a million pounds of old newspaper clippings and photos, going back 160 years.
It’s simply called “the morgue.”
To get here, a reporter must leave the shiny glass tower that is the 40th Street headquarters of the New York Times, walk a half-block down the street, and descend three levels below the sidewalk. There, in a nondescript tower, she will emerge from a dirty elevator, walk past a janitor’s closet, then a giant, rusted pump with running water, and finally reach a pair of metal doors. There are glue traps with belly-up cockroaches in the corner.
“I swear, we haven’t taken you to a torture chamber,” jokes Times photo editor Darcy Eveleigh, as she leads me through the double doors. There is no computer in the morgue. No internet service or cell reception. If we were to die here in the morgue — perhaps by an improperly secured two-ton cabinet — it’s safe to say it would take days for anyone to find our bodies.
Welcome to the archives repository of the most respected newspaper in the world.
Where History Lives On
The morgue’s keeper is a tall, dapper man named Jeffrey Roth, who greets us in a necktie, brown plaid suit jacket, and slacks. He is impeccably dressed for our surroundings.
Over the next four hours, he will lay out the intricacies of how the morgue once worked, and how it still works today: Clippings and photos are filed into neatly organized manila folders, organized by subject and biography, then recorded — first by hand, then by typewriter, then no longer recorded at all — onto index cards. At the morgue’s height, there were as many as two dozen clippers, filers, indexers, and counter-clerks, sifting through 16 copies of the paper each day, so that when a reporter needed background research, he had a place to go.
The morgue wasn’t always housed in a tomb, of course — though it’s said to have gotten its name because it was the place where dead stories were kept. But long before the days of Google, newspaper morgues were considered the heart of any newsroom — a place where history was chronicled, clip by clip, photo by photo.
It was here, in the morgue, that on the night of April 15, 1912, two morgue-keepers helped the Times scoop the world in its coverage of the Titanic, digging up hundreds of biographical histories, construction data, and disaster records that no other paper had bothered to save. It was the morgue that housed the original print of Lyndon Johnson being sworn in as president, for the first time, with Jackie Kennedy by his side in a blood-stained suit.
And it was through the morgue that figures like Jack Dempsey, Charles Lindbergh, and Marilyn Monroe would pass, the Times publisher himself offering up their biographical folders to sift through. “As all newspaper men know,” the Times wrote in 1970, in an obituary of one of its morgue keepers, “the morgue is anything but a dull place.”
And yet, over the years, as the newsroom has gone digital, as the staff of the morgue has shrunk from 20 to 1, and as the morgue itself has moved deeper and deeper below ground level, the space has slowly but surely been forgotten among the shiny new computers, budget-crunching, and fancy new digs upstairs. “Out of sight, out of mind,” as Roth puts it. Many of the young Times reporters don’t even know it exists, despite working above it each day.
To put the rarity of the Times morgue in perspective: the Daily News, “New York’s Picture Newspaper,” downsized much of its archive around the time it moved into its new office, in the mid-1990s. Time magazine’s fabled library was sent to New Jersey a decade ago, and Newsweek’s research library was mostly donated to the University of Texas — though not before dozens of boxes were accidentally carried off to the dump.
“I think we can agree that the first responsibility of [a newspaper] is not to its picture morgue but to today’s news, and it is no secret that the old structures of newsgathering are under stress,” says Peter Galassi, the longtime curator of the MoMA, which keeps a number of Times photos in its permanent collection. “The more attention and resources we devote to the past, the less remains for the present.”
The Times morgue has managed to survive, yet it is constantly fighting for its life as media organizations must face the implicit question: Do physical archives even make sense in the digital age? “It’s a perennial tension, and it goes back decades,” said David Dunlap, a longtime metro reporter who is the Times’ unofficial historian. “The morgue takes up a lot of physical space, and in Midtown Manhattan, physical space costs a lot.”
The Times stopped clipping articles in 1990, and since then, 30,000 books, dozens of filing cabinets, and hundreds of boxes have been donated or tossed, says Roth. Today’s morgue holds about 500 cabinets (he’s counted), housed in a space the size of a large-ish one-bedroom apartment.
The Keeper of the Morgue
The man who’s kept the morgue in business for the past two decades — though he’d never, ever speak so highly of himself — is 53-year-old Jeff Roth. His job has morphed from counter-clerk (back when the morgue actually had a counter) to a one-man-show that now includes electronic indexing, sweeping the floors, and hammering out the locks when a cabinet gets jammed.
Roth didn’t have a traditional reporting background. He joined the morgue in 1993, after visiting the space to research his distant cousin, Times reporting great Meyer Berger. He says he’s worked as a stockbroker, landscaper, art dealer, cross-country truck driver, and a narcotics search agent at JFK — a skill that came in handy for the Times when TWA Flight 800 went down (he knew the onboarding and offboarding procedures).
Ask Roth about almost anything — New York City explosions, feminist history, Yeats, Iran — and he will know the answer. It’s as if the wisdom of the morgue has filtered into his blood.
Over the years, Roth has stumbled upon a long-lost engagement photo of Diane Arbus, and the first-ever published photo by the late photographer W. Eugene Smith, known for his vivid images during WWII. (The photograph, of a latrine, was taken when Smith was 16; his parents’ Witchita, Ks., address is hand-written on the back.)
A few years ago, Roth discovered a set of unseen photos of Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock (mislabeled as “Hendricks”) and an unpublished contact sheet of the Stonewall Riots — the only known images of the uprising’s finale that had been lost inside a folder labeled “NYPD Tactical Unit.”
“There are things in here that are nowhere else,” Roth says, using the favorite word of morgue-keepers throughout the years — “serendipity” — to describe the morgue’s allure.
Still, Roth doesn’t like to make a big deal out of any of these tiny miracles — except when he’s fighting for the life of the place that invokes death in its name. In 2007, when the morgue space shrunk by half, Roth drove into Manhattan every Sunday, from Long Island, and carted 5,000 books back to a storage space, where he housed them until he had the space to move them back. When the Times’ business side asked him to show possible buyers the basement, in 2009, he wrote a scathing letter to one of the managing editors — and the morgue was suddenly moved back under the newsroom’s control (and preserved, for now).
Roth knows the morgue is of a different era. Its smell alone — dried newspaper ink, photo chemicals, linen paper — is one that many-a-blogger will never experience. And yet, with every search of the card catalog, it’s as if an observer is stumbling back in time, thrust into a perfect preserved moment in history. Search “Space” — as in the space program — and you’ll be redirected to “Rockets.” Newspaper clips about “Television” can be found in the drawer labeled “Radio.” And stories about “African-Americans” are still, somewhat jarringly, filed under “Negroes.” (There was a big fight over that one, Roth notes, but in the end, there were simply “too many folders to change.”)
It is a relic of an era past, and yet, Roth says, it is also a window into how we see the present — and one that, for all the benefits of online technology, simply couldn’t be gleaned from a computer.
Dunlap, who has worked at the Times for nearly four decades, remembers seeing the printed copy of the Times’ first story on AIDS, in 1981, under the headline, “RARE CANCER SEEN IN 41 HOMOSEXUALS.” It was a skinny column on the inside of the paper, eclipsed by a giant ad for the Independent Savings Bank. “Gay” hadn’t yet been added to the Times style manual. And yet the placement of the story said it all.
“From a historical perspective, a collection like this is priceless,” says Andie Tucher, a professor of journalism history at Columbia University.
New Life for an Era Past
The morgue may conjure images of decay and death — dead stories, dead politicians, the death of, dare we say it, print — but to anyone who’s had the luck of spending any time there, its value is clear: a place of living, breathing history that remains largely untouched by time.
Saving graces work in mysterious ways, of course, and today, the morgue may be resurrected by the same force that for so long threatened to kill it.
Since September 2010, the Lens blog at the Times has featured an occasional series of archival photos, dug up from the morgue by Times photo editor Eveleigh. From black-and-white images of Antarctica to the art of window-washing, getting the photos print-ready took some work. The images had to be repaired for tears and cracks, retouched and scanned, markings erased, sometimes whited-out limbs put back in.
But after just a few entries, the series became so popular that it led to a knockoff site. Readers began sending in their own photos. And suddenly, the word “morgue” — long forgotten around the newsroom — was back in vogue.
Lexi Mainland, the Times’ 33-year-old social media editor, heard about the project, and proposed a Tumblr where the photos could have a permanent home. Six months later, the Lively Morgue blog was born, with new entries every week. There was a warehouse full of mannequins, a moose blimp over Times Square, Nixon’s reflection over a dozen television screens, each shown with the backside of the photo, complete with the photographer’s notes, the price paid for the print, and — if it wxas published — a clipping of the original caption. If the Lively Morgue were to post 10 new archival images every week, it would take until the year 3935 to post every image housed in that vault.
“I think the value of the morgue is akin to the value of the historic record of Times journalism in general — to my mind, priceless,” says Mainland. “As we get more and more rooted in the world of pixels, I think it’s critical that we find ways to bring important collections of information with us as we go.”
She adds, “If only Tumblrs could have a smell.”
They can’t, of course. But for now, at least, the morgue is very much alive.
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