Courier Journal donates 'priceless' photo collection to University of Louisville

To ensure future generations can look back on defining moments in Louisville's history, The Courier Journal is donating its library of an estimated 3 million photographs and negatives to the University of Louisville Archives and Special Collections.

The Courier Journal, winner of 11 Pulitzer Prizes throughout its 154-year history, was joined by its parent company, Gannett, in donating the collection, which is being appraised and is expected to be worth tens of millions of dollars. This move will allow the public access to the collection, which chronicles history in Louisville as well as Kentucky and the nation.

The collection includes images from daily happenings and major events from approximately the mid-1930s to the early 2000s when digital photography began to replace the use of film to capture images. The collection might have dated back further, but Louisville’s Great Flood of 1937 destroyed much of The Courier Journal's photo and negative library.

“This gift will allow The Courier Journal to retain the legacy of our work through this collection of historic photographs,” Courier Journal Editor Mary Irby-Jones said. “It is important for us to preserve and share our work with others so our community can learn about the history of Louisville as captured through our photographers in the field for more than 150 years.”

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Members of the Bingham family, which owned the newspaper from 1918 to 1986, have made a separate donation to U of L to help preserve the collection, prepare it for public use and develop programming around it.

The combined generosity will create the Barry Bingham Jr. Courier-Journal Photograph Collection, interim U of L President Lori Stewart Gonzalez said. The collection's millions of photos and negatives will nearly double the holdings of the U of L Photographic Archives.

"We are incredibly grateful to The Courier Journal, Gannett, Emily Bingham, Molly Bingham and the rest of the Bingham family for making this historic gift possible,” Gonzalez said. “Generations of readers saw these photos in their daily newspaper each morning, and now, future generations will continue to be able to study and appreciate the insight they provide into the history of our city, state, nation and world.”

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Emily and Molly Bingham said they were pleased to take part.

“For most of a decade, it has been our dream to honor our father by finding a permanent, public home for The Courier Journal’s photographic collection,” they said. “This visual treasure is a testament to his dedication to high quality journalism, his passion for photography, his love of archives and his commitment to public access to information. He is up there somewhere today, smiling and joyfully twirling his trademark handlebar mustache.”

The Courier Journal is selling its downtown office building at 525 W. Broadway and wanted to ensure the collection was housed in a safe place.

Among the thousands of photo prints and negatives are compelling images from the civil rights movement; the 1970 mining disaster in Hyden, Kentucky; integration of Louisville public schools; the deadly Carrollton bus crash in 1988 and historic, prize-winning Kentucky Derby photos, Irby-Jones said.

“The Courier Journal is honored to entrust this priceless archive to the care of the University of Louisville for the purpose of making the collection available to the community for research and scholarship,” Irby-Jones said.

Besides the civil rights movement and the Kentucky Derby, the collection chronicles World War II, "presidential visits, changes in the built environment, and numerous public appearances and behind-the-scenes images of world leaders and celebrities,” said Carrie Daniels, director of Archives and Special Collections at U of L. “Basically, all of the changes happening within our country were captured in these photographs.”

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Elizabeth Reilly, photo archivist at U of L Libraries, said the volume of photos and negatives in the collection means it will take years to organize.

“It’s an incredible collection,” she said. “But we hope to make a portion of the collection available online in the near future. Digitizing – and more significantly, creating the descriptions that are necessary in order for photographs to be found online – takes time but it will make the collection accessible to everyone who wants to see it."

Reilly praised Barry Bingham Jr., the third and last Bingham family member to serve as the paper’s publisher, for setting high photographic standards. The Courier Journal won two Pulitzer Prizes for photojournalism during his tenure.

“He was a huge supporter of high-quality photojournalism,” Reilly said. “He grew and improved the quality of photography in the newspaper as print photo techniques improved with time. That commitment to quality is reflected in the collection and endures in the images we see in The Courier Journal today.”

Pat McDonogh, who has worked as a photographer at the newspaper for 39 years, said the collection is “truly a unique, one-of-a-kind, pictorial history of Kentucky.”

“The Courier Journal has a long history of great photography, and now it is being saved for future generations to enjoy and explore,” McDonogh said. “I've had many sleepless nights over the fate of the archives, and I'm thrilled that it is now in a safe place.”

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C. Thomas Hardin, who spent 28 years as a photographer and director of photography at The Courier Journal and Louisville Times, said the collection is "really a first-rate gift of history for this region, the city, the county, Kentucky and all of its 120 counties as well as Southern Indiana."

The Barry Bingham Jr. Courier-Journal Photo Collection Endowment is seeking additional contributions to support the organization, digitization, library services and public programming involving the collection.

To contribute or for more information, contact Denise Bohn, denise.bohn@louisville.edu.

Reach Billy Kobin at bkobin@courierjournal.com

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Courier Journal donates photo archive to University of Louisville