If the lights went out right now — some solar flare that fried the worldwide electrical grid like the doomsday preppers are always talking about on TV, maybe — you can rest easy knowing that the collective human past would endure. We're not talking about just books and old newspapers and stories told around the campfire, either. We're talking about the actual moments that prove we existed and what we value. That's what photographs really are when you get down to it: a judgment call by somebody — be that somebody Dorothea Lange or Ansel Adams or some nobody at a backyard barbecue — that a single second of a given lifetime was worth preserving forever. If all the gadgets and gizmos we've come to increasingly rely on went dark right now, the two-dimensional products of that desire (those created in the pre-digital world, anyway) would live on in a hundred million shoeboxes.
One person who knows a lot about photographs as things that capture more than a moment is 37-year-old North Little Rock entrepreneur John Rogers. To hear him tell it, he's walked bass ackwards into a sultan's fortune over the past 15 years, going from selling baseball cards to almost singlehandedly creating the concept of buying and selling large quantities of news photos to the general public. Over the past three years, his Rogers Photo Archive in North Little Rock has been on a buying spree, purchasing the vast photo morgues of 11 great (and greatly cash-strapped) American newspapers, including the Chicago Sun-Times, The Denver Post, the Boston Herald and The Detroit News.
In most cases, Rogers gets the physical prints from their archives, everything from never-before-seen originals of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley to tonnage-quantities of snaps taken during long-forgotten news events. In exchange, the papers get an electronic copy of their old photo archives — digitized and tagged one by one by Rogers' crews in North Little Rock and India — that allows them to search for a given subject with just a few keystrokes. As of this writing, the Rogers Photo Archive has the capability to scan, clean and tag over 1.2 million photos and 1.3 million negatives a month; a system being tested right now by a new deal to digitize the photo archives of the 30 newspapers in the McClatchy Company newspaper chain. Rogers said that when the McClatchy scans are completed, it will bring the total photographic holdings of the Rogers Photo Archive to over 80 million images, making it by far the largest privately-held collection of still photos in the world.
After the digital copies have been returned to the original owners, Rogers makes his money via several revenue streams, including licensing images of celebrities, politicians and sports icons, selling "stock photo" rights, and selling original prints online. The Rogers Archive is, for example, the biggest seller on eBay right now, with over two million photos currently for sale in their eBay store. Rogers said eBay alone brings in $120,000 a week. That's in addition to what the archive makes from catalogue auctions of one-of-a-kind historic photos, super-high quality prints taken from the glass negatives of a photographer Rogers calls "The Matthew Brady of Baseball," and a sideline company that makes photographic sports collectibles that wind up in the gift shops of many major league parks.
Rogers said he feels like he's helping to preserve American history for coming generations while bringing the 20th Century, as chronicled by American journalism, out of dusty basement file cabinets and into the light of day. His goal is to digitize the photo archive of every American newspaper.
Born and raised in North Little Rock, John Rogers' passion from a young age was collecting baseball cards and memorabilia.
"I was obsessed with trading cards as a kid," he said. "Some kids were into 'Star Wars' or going to movies. My sole obsession was baseball cards."
As Rogers' baseball card collection grew, so did he, eventually reaching a formidable six-foot-six-inches tall and leading him to the football gridiron, where he played for North Little Rock High. Though Rogers was big, he said, he wasn't particularly fast on his feet, which limited his prospects. He was offered a few scholarships, eventually choosing Louisiana Tech in Ruston, La.
"My mother made about $300 bucks a week baby sitting kids in our home," he said. "My dad was selling insurance. We didn't have any extra money... Me going to college was not an option had I not gotten that scholarship."
In Louisiana, Rogers soon found himself constrained by an NCAA rule that said players can't work during the school year. As a way of making money "under the NCAA's radar," he started selling off his boyhood trove of vintage baseball cards and memorabilia, traveling to Dallas, St. Louis and Memphis during the off season to sell at trade shows and running "buying ads" in local newspapers, saying he would pay cash for trading cards and memorabilia. Eventually, he said, he was bringing in around $40,000 a year. While selling cards was good for his wallet, it didn't do much for his concentration.
"I would be at football practice as a starter, trying to learn some new offense scheme against Alabama or Tennessee, and I'd be looking at the clock, thinking: 'Man, I told this guy I was going to meet him because he's got this Mickey Mantle rookie card.' That's all I cared about. My mind was elsewhere."
Rogers graduated and got married in the winter of 1996 and moved back to North Little Rock. He soon had a job interview with Stephens Investments. Just before the interview, Rogers said, he decided that he wanted to make a go of a sports card shop. "My dad bought me a suit for graduation," Rogers said. "When I canceled that interview, it broke his heart. I just decided that I didn't want to go to work for somebody yet. I wanted to keep trying what I was doing."
Rogers started his Sports Cards Plus on Rodney Parham in 1996, moving to JFK in North Little Rock when his lease expired two years later. As the owner of a brick-and-mortar business, Rogers had kept up his practice of running "buying ads" in newspapers, eventually running ads in major cities all over the country. While answering calls from these ads, he began to notice a pattern. "I started coming across team photographers," he said. "Team photographers, who shot for the Cardinals, or the Braves or the Yankees... They'd call and say, 'I've got a World Series ring.' I'd ask how they got it, and they'd say: 'I was the team photographer. I've also got these game-used bats,' or 'Ted Williams gave me his hat.' "
Rogers began buying from team photographers, in many cases working with a son or daughter trying to sell off an estate. In most cases, in addition to what he called "the cool stuff" like bats and signed baseballs, photographers often had large stockpiles of photos and negatives they'd shot over the years.
"I didn't care about any of that," Rogers said. "I knew nothing about it. It was a burden. The first several deals where I would buy [the entire estate], they'd say: 'How about these negatives?' and I'd tell them to keep 'em."
In 2000 however, Rogers made a $50,000 deal to buy the estate of a photographer named Don Wingfield, a freelancer who had shot for The Sporting News, Topps Baseball Cards, Life and Look Magazines, and the Washington Senators from the '40s to the '60s. The person handling his estate wanted to be rid of everything. Though Rogers tried to leave behind a box of negatives, the executor insisted. "The guy said, 'No, you have to take everything,' " Rogers said. "So I loaded up all the cool stuff, and there was an old box of dusty negatives that I knew nothing about."
Back in North Little Rock, Rogers stored the negatives and went on about his business.
"Months went by," he said, "and then we got a call from the Washington Times. They had contacted the family to get access to [Don Wingfield's] photos. They had called the guy I had bought them from, and that guy said call me. Basically they were running a story on Don and wanted to do a retrospective on his photography."
When the story eventually ran as a Sunday feature, Rogers and his shop were mentioned by name as the owner of the Wingfield negatives. On Monday morning, Rogers' phone rang. It was Upper Deck Trading Cards.
Upper Deck was one of the largest trading card companies in the world, specializing in high-end cards for the serious collector. They wanted to talk to Rogers about the Wingfield negatives. In the world of photos, owning the negatives usually means you own the rights to the photo and can do with it as you wish, but Rogers was a little cloudy on that concept at the time.
"They said, 'Hey, we read this story. Would you be interested in licensing those images to us?' " Rogers recalled. "I didn't even know what that meant. I knew what the word 'lease' meant, but how would you 'lease' memorabilia? So I said, 'I'll sell them to you!' I had no idea there was this huge industry where people pay for the one-time use of a photo. It was way over my head."
That was Monday. By Wednesday, four top execs from Upper Deck had flown to Little Rock from their offices in Carlsbad, Calif. "That quick, they ran out here," he said. "I told them they could dig through them, and they said: 'Where's your light table?' I said: 'Light table? What are you talking about?' They weren't getting it. I didn't know anything about this stuff, so they went and bought a light table."
Rogers said alarm bells should have been going off by then, but they weren't. The execs from Upper Deck kept asking over and over which of the negatives they could buy, as if they couldn't quite believe it. "I said, 'You can buy all of them!'," Rogers said. "They're looking at each other. We went to lunch, and they said: 'Just so we're clear, we can just BUY the negatives outright?' I said: 'Yeah, yeah.' They said: 'Do you have a price?' and I said, 'I don't know what they're worth... You guys make me an offer, and if it sounds decent and fair, I'll accept it.' "
In truth, Rogers did have a number in mind. After seeing how excited they were, he was hoping for $10,000. He'd already turned a handsome profit by selling off the "cool stuff" from Wingfield's collection, and figured anything he got from the negatives would be a bonus. "I'd paid $50,000 for everything, all these bats and gloves," he said. "I'd already made a profit on all that, so I'm thinking: 'Man, whatever.' "
He wasn't going to tell Upper Deck that, however. After the execs tried a few more times to wheedle a number out of him, they flew back to California, promising to come up with an offer within the week. After another call in which they tried to browbeat Rogers into coughing up a figure, they eventually sent an e-mail.
"They offered $350,000," Rogers said. "I was like: 'That's crazy!' I thought it was $3,500, and somebody had typed a few extra zeroes."
After calling Upper Deck to confirm that they did, in fact, want to give him that kind of money, Rogers made the classic rookie error. "I picked up the phone like an idiot and said, 'I'll take it!'," he said. "I'm sure they were expecting me to counter with, like, $600,000, $500,000, but I said, 'Yeah! Done!' It was probably equivalent to what I'd made since I'd been out of college — my total earnings."
The cashier's check arrived, and — still sure there had been a mistake or that Upper Deck was about to go bankrupt — Rogers sweated out a ten-day business hold on the funds and the money cleared. Later on, he learned from a friend at Upper Deck that they'd been willing to go as high as a half-million dollars for the Wingfield negatives, which have since been called a national treasure.
"These were phenomenal," Rogers said. "They were from the '40s through the '60s — the golden era of baseball: Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio — all the biggest of the bigs. It was an amazing collection."
At $350,000, Rogers said, the deal worked out to about $42 per negative, with Upper Deck able to use them forever. When Rogers eventually "educated himself" about photo licensing, he learned that a company like Upper Deck would normally pay $150 to $500 for one-time use of an image of a player like Mickey Mantle.
Though the Wingfield collection is the one that got away, it was a learning experience and got his wheels turning. "In their minds, they stole it," he said. "I'm the biggest idiot in the world in their minds. But I was thrilled. I was thinking: I get it now. I'm going to take this money, go out, and do a lot of business."
Rogers came away from the Upper Deck sale flush with cash and with a whole new plan, calling up all the old baseball photographers whose negatives and photos he'd originally passed on and seeking out new hunting grounds. Eventually, he bought up the archives of a slew of famous and not-so-famous sports photographers, then used the contacts he'd made with Upper Deck to cut a deal to license vintage images for their cards and memorabilia at much lower rates than they had been paying.
"They canceled all their licensing contracts with Getty [Images] and other companies, and they sole-sourced their inventory from me for four years."
Rogers kept buying photographic archives, eventually acquiring the rights to the work of famed photographer Arthur Rickerby for $600,000. It was another game changer. "Rickerby shot everything," Rogers said. "He was at the first Super Bowl. He shot the famous photo of Don Larson with the ball leaving his hand in the perfect game in '56. He followed Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris in 1961, but he was also following President Kennedy, he was following the Civil Rights struggle, he was a Life magazine photographer. By accident, when I bought the estate, I got all these other things I didn't know about."
Upper Deck wasn't interested in buying pictures of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy, so Rogers set up a website and started offering the non-sports images for licensing to publications. "Suddenly people were calling," he said. "They'd say, 'We want to use this President Kennedy image on a magazine cover.' "
Between 2000 and 2006, Rogers managed to build up an archive of 3 million images to which he owned the rights. He bought his first publication archive in 2007, when he purchased the photos of Sport magazine, which had gone bankrupt. That purchase got Rogers talking to his friend George Michael, who hosted the nationally syndicated radio show "The George Michael Sports Machine." Michael was a sports photography collector, and Rogers said it was he who first came up with the idea of buying the archives of newspapers in bulk and then licensing or parting out the contents.
"George, being that he was a media guy, had all these contacts," Rogers said. "He said the newspapers have millions of photos in their basements and they're doing nothing with them." Michael had a friend at the Detroit News. The archive was good, full of historic photos, but Rogers said Michael convinced him it would take a $1 million offer to get The Detroit News archive. In 2009, he did just that.
"I took every penny I had, borrowed the rest, and I bought the Detroit News," Rogers said. "I went from having 3 million images to having 4.5 million images. I never dreamed I could go into an institution and buy their photos." The catch, however, was that the Detroit News still needed their photo archives to operate. Part of the deal was for Rogers to digitize and return a digital copy to them within one year. The Rogers Archive had digitized 3 million images by then, but this seemed impossible. "It was one thing to digitize 3 million of my images over seven years," he said. "It was another to do a million and a half images and they want them done in 12 months."
Rogers thought the Detroit News project would be a one-time deal, so he didn't want to invest money in high-end scanners, which he said can run up to $80,000. Instead, "we went out and bought $600 flatbed scanners that could do about 600 scans a week," he said. "We had to hire all these employees to run them, and we realized pretty quick that it was going to take a lot longer than a year."
Logistics aside, the Detroit News turned out to be great for Rogers, who quickly recouped his money through sales of historic prints (including one catalogue auction that he said grossed more than $400,000) and a ramped up eBay sales presence. "We basically created the market of people buying news photos," he said. "There was always a market for original art photography, something that sells in a gallery for thousands, but there was no market for an individual who wasn't a photo buyer."
While they were working on digitizing the Detroit News, the Detroit Free Press called and wanted the same deal: a cash payout for the physical archives, and a searchable digital copy. Rogers was tapped of cash by then, but banks were beginning to hear about the Detroit News archive and he was able to secure loans. He eventually bought the Detroit Free Press archive in June 2009. In the meantime, the Detroit News started putting their archives online and selling prints of historic photos.
"Other people started seeing that, and they said: 'Wow! How'd you do that? We don't have the money to digitize.' [The Detroit News owners] said: 'Man, there's this nut down in Arkansas, and if you'll give him the photos, he'll give you a bunch of cash and digitize them for free!' They started lining up at the door." Over the next few years as word of his purchases spread, Rogers would wind up buying the archives of a host of great newspapers, including the St. Petersburg Times, The Chicago Daily News, The Denver Post, The Boston Herald and The Sporting News.
One thing Rogers learned early on would seem to be the most obvious: valuable original photos of famous people and historic events make up only a tiny percentage of each newspaper's archive. Though they were making good money selling "the gold," Rogers said, the regular news photos that it seemed nobody would ever care to own had started to stack up in a warehouse.
"One day, I just told my guys: I know it's not fun, but we've got to figure out if this other stuff sells," Rogers said. "We started putting it on eBay, and we were just thrilled. We found out that people want the photos of places from their youth. They want the photos of a park they grew up playing in. They're not going to pay thousands of dollars, but they want them."
That discovery led The Rogers Photo Archive to become what Rogers called "The Walmart of Photography." He said that these days, online sales of seemingly insignificant places and people "dwarf" the amount of money they make on "the big stuff" — photos of Babe Ruth, Marilyn Monroe, The Beatles and other famous figures.
"If there's a million photos [in an archive], about 40 percent of them will be staff [photographed] and we'll do the revenue share," he said. "There's another 40 percent that are clearly off-limits to us to license because they'll be from AP or a private photographer, and there are about 20 percent that are always a mystery. There's no stamping, nothing on the back." They can sell the original prints no matter who shot them, but they can't license anything they don't own the rights to.
Though Rogers' fortune has grown, he still works up to 75 hours a week, often sorting 30,000-image batches of photos at home in the evenings. He plows money back into the business, he said, and doesn't golf, hunt, fish or ski. That said, he clearly still delights in hunting the elephants of sports memorabilia. Since 2008, he's bought and sold three copies of the legendary 1909 Honus Wagner T206 baseball card, and helped broker deals for two more. In 2011, he paid $17,233 for the only known nude photo of Joe DiMaggio, a 1930s snap of DiMaggio in the showers at Yankee Stadium. He buys unfathomably rare game-used baseball jerseys, then uses photos from the archives — CSI-style — to authenticate them down to the last button. He owns, for instance, the jersey Mickey Mantle wore at every home game through most of his 1956 season, the year he won the Triple Crown. Though it was sold as a 1955 jersey, Rogers was able to prove it was a '56 by matching it to over 60 photos in the archive. Because that's Mantle's signature year, a jersey Rogers bought for $210,000 was suddenly worth over a million.
Then there's his rediscovery and purchase of over 8,000 glass negatives by the famed early sports photographer Charles Conlon, who shot some of the first "action" sports photography between 1909 and 1930, capturing some of the most iconic images in history. Rogers, who calls Conlon "the Matthew Brady of baseball," had been a collector of Conlon prints for years, and set out to find the negatives in the late 2000s. They'd been used to create a book on Conlon by The Sporting News in 1993, but after that, they'd disappeared and nobody seemed to know where they were. "They thought maybe they were in a warehouse in North Carolina, or maybe in St. Louis," Rogers said.
Through some detective work, Rogers eventually tracked them down to a warehouse in Charlotte, N.C. He remembers an old security guard leading him to a forgotten closet, where they had been unceremoniously buried under piles of junk. "They were down on the floor," he said. "The boxes were water-damaged, and on top of them were coats, phonebooks, coats, phonebooks. It was like an archeological dig. He said they did a coat drive every year, and it was literally four years worth: coats and phonebooks, with the negatives at the bottom."
Those negatives, Rogers said, have since been appraised at $18 million dollars.
At a former daycare center on Poplar Street in North Little Rock, Rogers' crews work around the clock in rooms that still bear crude, colorful murals of trees and smiling kids. There, using a "trade secret" formula that won't damage the photo emulsion, Rogers' employees carefully remove the editors' marks from the images, then scan them front and back. The archive currently employs over 300 people worldwide, including 120 in North Little Rock and Memphis, and another 200-plus in India, where they have photo tagging operations in Bangalore and Calcutta. Though Rogers said he has "caught some heat from critics" who say he's outsourcing jobs, he said that if they weren't doing the photo tagging overseas to help defray costs, the business model couldn't exist.
The building on Poplar Street is literally stuffed with photos, with every available surface covered with loose photos or boxes containing images waiting to be sorted and scanned. That's in addition to the large rooms full of towering shelves, each shelf packed with file folders, each folder packed with categorized images: Harry Truman, Dizzy Gillespie, Rosa Parks, Bill Clinton, the shootings at Kent State, Vietnam, D-Day, a million other moments, standing still forever. This is what the 20th Century in America looks like when you put the whole of it in one place.
Rogers' business model in purchasing newspaper archives has changed somewhat in the past few years. "The old days of us cutting large checks, we don't do that much anymore," he said. "Because our services have improved so much, we give them millions in services for free, we take physical possession of the prints, which we sell in the collectibles world and we keep that 100 percent. We pay for all the digital costs, and then we represent that content [with the papers] on a 50/50 revenue basis."
The business is still growing as well. With the help of North Little Rock businessman Mac Hogan and Dr. Christopher Cathey, Rogers started a new company called Rogers Partners, which has struck a deal with the McClatchy Company newspaper chain to eventually scan the photo archives of every paper they own. They've started work on the first batch of McClatchy papers, including the Kansas City Star, The Wichita Daily Eagle, and the Charlotte Observer, and will have scanned and tagged somewhere between 10 and 12 million images by the time they're done. The deal with McClatchy is a bit different as well. The Rogers Archives won't own the negatives in that case, but will have an exclusive agreement to license content from the McClatchy materials.
Rogers is still looking for other prospects as well. He said he's inspected the photo archives of America's top 100 largest newspapers, and has either made offers or determined a purchase wouldn't be profitable (in many cases, Rogers said, newspaper photo archives have been cannibalized, with employees taking home photos of the famous and infamous as souvenirs). Rogers Partners is also talking to newspapers in Australia, Sweden, New Zealand, China and the UK about buying archives there. Rogers also acquired his first video archive in August, buying the 50-year collection of famed documentary filmmaker David Hoffman, with over 2,000 hours of video — including what Rogers believes is the only unedited copy of President John F. Kennedy speaking at the dedication of Greers Ferry Dam in October 1963, a little over a month before he was assassinated.
The way the Rogers Photo Archive sells its materials is also changing. Two years, ago, Rogers started planetgiant.com, which uses content from the collection to make everything from inspirational posters to large murals of sports greats. Within the month, he said, his new argentaimages.com will go live, with several million photos for sale to the general public.
Rogers is North Little Rock to the bone, and says that's where his company will stay. He has purchased land near his Poplar Street properties and plans to build a dedicated home for the archive there in coming years. "I'm big on North Little Rock," he said. "I like the town. I don't want to move anywhere else."
Standing in the conference room, surrounded by boxes and boxes of photos, he can't seem to stop himself from flipping through. Though he said he's sure some people will laugh when they hear it, he said he sees the work they're doing as a service to the country.
"Our nation's history is not preserved," he said. "The U.S. newspapers were there to document our history, because we live in such a great country that has free media and free speech. At every event, you had the media there, and they printed it the next day in the paper. But in terms of long-term preservation, they've done a very poor job. We're doing it right. We're doing it the right way."
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