Army History


History of Visual Information Records

By Carol Brown, DSN 227-5796

Have you ever picked up a magazine displaying old photographs of men at war, or watched a TV documentary on WWII and wondered where the publisher or movie makers got the pictures or footage?

Most of it probably came from the National Archives and some came from the DoD Visual Information Centers (DVIC). But from where did it really come?

Originally, it comes from Army installation VI activities and combat camera soldiers. Each VI activity's task is to document the Army's--and ultimately the nation's--permanent official visual history. This documentation encompasses the readiness posture of units, major military operations, campaigns, exercises, maneuvers, intelligence, and command and control. It also covers major peacetime engagements such as disaster relief, civil disturbance control, environmental protection, construction of major systems, facilities, installations, the President of the United States or a family member, and other significant military events (the activation, deactivation, or deployment of a division or a change of command, for example).

Where did it start?

Officially, the Army has been keeping visual information records since 1918 when the Signal Corps Photographic Laboratory started operating out of temporary frame buildings scattered around the Old Washington Barracks. We now know this facility as Fort Lesley J. McNair.

WWI was the first conflict to be widely photographed with motion picture cameras. This brought the war to the movie audience for the first time and simultaneously aided our combat intelligence.

When the war ended, the Army reorganized and gave the Signal Corps the task of maintaining the complete Civil War photographic collection of Matthew Brady. The Army War College Laboratory stored the Brady "wet plate" glass negatives. His photographs were housed at the Munitions Building on Constitution Avenue in Washington, DC.

Although the demand for Army photographic and motion picture coverage increased, the still photo library consisted mostly of portrait files of military officials and high level civilians in the War Department before WWII. The few historic pictures maintained at the library were filed alphabetically in cabinet drawers. Except for the "Red Book" and "Fartherest North in 1881" of the Greely Expedition, there weren't enough "subjects" then to fill individual subject books. The Greely photographs were uncaptioned. Information about the expedition remained very sketchy until library employees met with the 90-year old General Greely. Together, they chronicled all his photographs.

During the 1920's many veterans of the Indian Wars donated old photographs. Even though some were identified, many photographs remained unidentified and uncaptioned. Thus, they were of little use in documenting that period of US history. Library employees even sought the help of personnel in the offices of the Calvary, Infantry, Field, and Coast Artillery to help identify and caption these photographs. Proper captioning of record material is still a big problem today.

Facilities split

The photo and motion picture facilities split in the late 1930's. The photo facility remained in Washington, DC while the motion picture facility moved to Fort Monmouth, New Jersey then again to a large studio in Astoria, Long Island, New York in 1942. The studio, previously owned by Paramount Pictures, was constructed in 1919 and covered several square blocks. The first Army training films were produced here. The studio remained an operational depository until 1970.

In early 1942 the Still Photographic Library completed its first real subject book on "Pearl Harbor." From that time on library "subject" books increased. The files contained a total of 156,000 negatives with more added as the war progressed.

By late 1942, the Still Photo Library and lab personnel began the move to specially designed rooms on the Pentagon's fifth floor. The Still Photo Lab operates from the same location today.

Army is War Department VI repository

Since the Office of the Secretary of War did not have any still or motion picture facilities, the Army was designated as the only agency to store and release still and motion pictures to the news media and general public. During this period the Army library worked closely with War Department staff offices, providing vital support for significant military news events such as the battles of Corregidor, Saipan, and Bouganville. Signal Corps photographers (now called combat camera soldiers) were on hand to record other famous WWII campaigns too--the landings on North Africa and the battle for Mount Cassino, Italy.

The Army was fortunate during WWII in that Hollywood civilian motion picture studios volunteered their services for the duration of the War. Army training films directed by Darryl F. Zanuck and Frank Capra are in the National Archives today.

The first three-color-shot separation negatives were transmitted across the ocean in 1942. The picture was that of President Harry Truman, Prime Minister Clement Atlee and Joseph Stalin at the Potsdam Conference. The transmission took 21 minutes--7 minutes for each of the three separate color negatives. Today, we receive a photo from the front line 5 minutes after it is taken.

Famous Customers

In 1955, the Still Photo Library upgraded the plain subject books to fine black leatherette binders. Arranged by subject and stored in new metal cabinets, they were easily accessible by visitors, authors, and news people. Customers found the library a ready source of valuable photographs. General John "Blackjack" Pershing used these facilities for his "Volumes on World War I."

LIFE magazine used the library in its first venture in book publishing--LIFE's "Picture History of World War II." Many distinguished visitors used the still photo research facilities--General William Westmoreland developed his manuscript for a Department of Army report on "The History of Vietnam." Other famous customers included entertainer Bob Hope, writer James Jones, and Senator Ted Kennedy. Many high-level Government officials make use of this valuable resource. Over the years, countless others found these facilities a boundless source of reference, information, and photographs.

VI personnel were always on the scene, at home or scattered around the globe, recording the history of the Army. During the Panama Riots of 1964, combat camera soldiers were there, filming the story. This visual record helped to prove that the Communists had instigated the riots, not the Americans.

By 1965 more than 30,000 incoming negatives a year were processed into the still photo records depository. There were already more than 630,000 negatives on file, about 25,000 of which were color. In addition, more than 40,000,000 feet of motion picture footage from Vietnam and elsewhere was processed into the motion picture depository between 1962 and 1972.

Media on the Move

The Army Pictorial Center in Astoria, New York closed in 1970. Approximately 40,000 cans of stock footage and 5,500 edited subjects moved to the new depository at Tobyhanna Army Depot in the Poconos Mountains of Pennsylvania.

From the first US combat troops committed to Vietnam in the early 1960's until the conflict ended in the 1970's, combat camera soldiers continuously documented the longest and most visually recorded war in US history. They covered MEDEVAC operations, counterinsurgency, PSYOPS, pacification, and the turning point of the war--the TET Offensive. The news media used this footage to bring the impact of the Vietnam conflict into the public's living rooms.

In October 1980, the Still Photo Library, now known as the DoD Still Media Record Center, transferred to the control of a new agency, the Defense Audiovisual Agency (DAVA). Eight other visual information facilities and depositories, including centers from the Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps, consolidated under this newly created agency.

The Still Photo Library employed 16 staff members who handled approximately 300 written inquiries and letters and over 400 walk-ins and telephone calls a month. The library accessioned over 18,538 new negatives into the library just prior to their move to the DoD facility. The library also had 2,402,985 photographs and negatives on file, including 120,000 thousand color negatives dating back to WWII. Today, the collection consists of approximately 13,000 negatives. All material collected prior to 1982 is in the National Archives.

On the move, again

The motion picture and video depository at Tobyhanna Army Depot, along with the Navy, Marine Corps, and DoD motion depositories transferred to a DAVA facility located at Norton AFB, California in 1980. It took 14 tractor trailers to move approximately 150,000 boxes of 35mm, 16mm, and 2-inch videotapes, 100,000 boxes of stock footage, and 600,000 pounds of printed material to the new consolidated depository.

The Tobyhanna mission changed from a depository to a temporary holding facility for edited video productions. It also had the mission to replicate and distribute these productions to Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and DoD. Finally, by 1994 Air Force units were also served by Tobyhanna Depot.

When Norton AFB closed in 1993, DAVA, renamed the DoD VI Record Center (DVIC) moved to a new automated facility at March AFB, California. Today, Army DVIC holdings consist of 4,235,483 feet of film and 23,400 minutes of video.

The DVIC processes over 1,000 requests for Army stock footage and product replication annually. Just prior to the move, approximately 70 percent of Army holdings dated prior to 1982 transferred to the National Archives. The 30 percent not accepted were either returned to the Army or destroyed.


Today, from around the world, Army combat camera soldiers transmit or ship record documentation to the DoD Joint Combat Center in the Pentagon. Installation VI activities make quarterly submissions of record material to the US Army Visual Information Center where record material is reviewed and accessioned into each of the DoD record centers.

When the negatives, electronic images, or stock footage are accessioned, the material is available for Army, news media, and the general public use. Depending on the urgency of need, requests for photographs, electronic images, stock footage, or edited videos can be processed within two to ten working days. Both record centers make regular submissions of record material to the National Archives.

The future looks promising

As we look ahead toward the next decade and beyond, the revolution in telecommunications, computer graphics, and visual information technology surges ahead. The future of VI looks very promising. However, we should not forget the past: we should all pay tribute to the men and women who worked diligently to make visual information record keeping the success it is today.

From its humble beginnings in 1918, visual information records keeping has matured in size, mission, and technology.

We have come a long way--and it is only the beginning.

Sidebar: Send requests for still photographs, electronic imagery, illustrations, or graphic to the NAVAL MEDIA CENTER, BUILDING 168, ANACOSTIA NAVAL STATION, 2701 SOUTH CAPITAL STREET, WASHINGTON, DC 20374-5081. Send requests for film or video stock footage to the DOD VI RECORD CENTER, 1363 Z STREET, BUILDING 2730, MARCH AFB, CA 92518-2717.

This article was published in The ViewPoint, Winter 1995, Vol VI, No. 1. The ViewPoint is the official publication of the Director of Information Systems for Command, Control, Communications and Computers, US Army. For further information contact the Editor.

. The ViewPoint is the official publication of the Director of Information Systems for Command, Control, Communications and Computers, US Army. For further information contact the Editor.

Updated January 29, 2019.


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