Scores of people visit YouTube to view cute dogs, hilarious kids, and celebrity miscues. But two brothers, Jim and Andy Erickson, launched a web site in 2007 to catalog some of the greatest events in history captured on video and photography: Critical Past (www.Criticalpast.com)
More serious than YouTube and committed to preserving history, Critical Past includes 57,000 videos and 7 million photographic stills. The visual images collected on the site derive from US government agency archives, which Critical Present is licensed to sell and present (other vendors have also secured this right). Viewing images and stills on the site is free, but visitors are charged for the use of these visuals for commercial purposes.
Andy and Jim Erickson specialized in archival research and wanted to ensure that images and data from US government agencies could be tapped by people on the Internet. They developed an index to organize all the images and most include captions and historical references. Prior to launching Critical Past, Jim Erickson was a partner in Stock Footage Clips. Andy was involved in software and product management at AOL. By combining their divergent skills, they formed Critical Past.
Images on Critical Past date back to the 1890s and cover the Depression, World War I, and World War II, including D-Day and Pearl Harbor. The site also covers vintage videos and stills of the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War. Some of the most popular images are of presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Jr., and Ronald Reagan. Critical Past sifted through a score of these clips and arranged them thematically so viewers can easily find a desired clip of Woodrow Wilson on World War I, Lyndon Johnson speaking about the Civil Rights Act, or Martin Luther King delivering a speech.
The videos and images derive from a variety of governmental sources, including the National Archives and Records Administration, Library of Congress, NASA, and the Department of Army, Navy, and Air Force, to name just a few.
The site is easy to use. It’s organized into Home, About, Browse, How To Buy-FAQ, Shopping Cart, and Forum, which is for people to discuss their interest in researching these video clips and photos. The search engine enables visitors to access nearly any photo or video.
Critical Past is a for-profit business that operates like an old-fashioned stock footage agency. People must buy rights to the copyrighted videos and still photos to use for commercial purposes. “Our primary customers are film and TV producers, broadcasters, independent filmmakers, and documentarians,” explains Andy Erickson. Scholars also access these photos to conduct research or work on their doctorate. But most use Critical Past for free and don’t need to acquire commercial rights.
“We consider ourselves a stock footage house. That’s how our bills get paid,” explained Andy Erickson. But though Critical Past operates as a business, Erickson is quick to add, “We also value our mission. We want to present history for everyone to use.”
Any of these visual images can be viewed online for research, but they are compressed on the screen. Also, most of them have the Critical Past logo on them, preventing commercial use. The videos last from 2 seconds to 40 minutes, and most average 2 to 11 minutes. Once users buy the rights, they receive enlarged downloads, which are of better and clearer quality.
Any filmmaker who wants to acquire rights pays a minimum of $60 to $300, based on the duration of the video. As a less expensive alternative, consumers can also pay a modest $5 for a rough cut of a screen shot. In addition, consumers can purchase rights to obtain still photos for $5 to $25.
Most of these photos and videos were taken by US government photographers and videographers who were sent to record war and other historic events. “The strongest videos and images in our collection derive from where the US government was directing its camera lens—war, civil rights, American presidents,” Erickson noted. Capturing worldwide propaganda and shooting US enemies at war is also a major source of material.
Erickson is surprised at times by the personal reaction of some people who view photos. Some people write in and explain how they’ve viewed a photo of their dad at war during World War II.
Andy Erickson also acknowledges that the industrious researchers can obtain use of these photos on their own either for free or for a reduced fee by going direct to the federal governmental source. For most people it would entail extensive red tape. They would have to hire a researcher and it could take countless hours to track images down. For many people, paying a fee to Critical Past saves considerable time and energy and enables them to obtain priceless images.
Gary M. Stern is a freelance writer based in New York City.