Flickr and SmugMug create foundation to preserve cultural photographic legacies

The Flickr Foundation archives
(Image credit: The Flickr Foundation / )

Popular online photography platform Flickr, now owned by SmugMug, has announced the establishment of a nonprofit organization in the form of The Flickr Foundation – an attempt to preserve cultural and historical legacies within the medium and practice of photography.

This organization aims to not only protect and preserve online images that hold historical and cultural importance, but also promote access to these images as an accessible resource for future generations and students.

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The Flickr Foundation intends to share a collection of world-renowned photography and culturally significant images in the hopes of creating an online resource, with the express goal of preserving photography for the next few hundred years.

"At SmugMug + Flickr, we believe that photography is an incredibly important visual record of our history," said COO Ben MacAskill, "but as citizens, we don’t have nearly enough access to our own photographic histories in the public domain. The Flickr Foundation is being founded expressly to change that."

Martin Luther King press conference - 1964 Mar. 26. (Image credit: The Flickr Foundation / The Library of Congress)

The Foundation will be developing programs in four major areas of cultural preservation: Flickr Commons, content mobility, creative archiving, and fostering new curators. It aims, through these efforts, to care for and expand the wealth of historical images that exist on Flickr, and devise a longevity plan for the entire Flickr collection. 

Flickr has been a strong foundation and staple of the online photography community – and despite previous changes in ownership and developments, it has remained a viable source of visual imagery and sharing that many photographers still use and enjoy.

Tlingit woman named Kaw-Claa wearing her potlatch dancing costume, Alaska, 1906. (Image credit: The Flickr Foundation / University of Washington Libraries. Digital Collections / Photographer: Nowell, Frank H.)

The initial idea for this concept was first presented 14 years ago, when in 2008 Flickr's then-designer George Oates intended to create a program to assist the world’s cultural and artistic institutions and share their vast photography collections. She called it The Flickr Commons program, and it launched in collaboration with the United States Library of Congress.

Continuing to work in the cultural heritage sector, Oates is regarded as something of a go-to expert on digital archives. "The Commons project began with two aims," she says. "Firstly, to increase exposure to the amazing content currently held in the public collections of civic institutions around the world; and secondly, to facilitate the collection of knowledge about these collections, with the hope that this information would feed back into the catalogs, making them richer and easier to search."

As for today, the Flickr Commons (now rebranded as The Flickr Foundation) boasts an immense collection of historically significant images, as well as those from the public domain, and from contributors that include the Smithsonian, the British Library, NASA, The Library of Congress, and academic institutions around the world.

The yeoman farmer Ollas Per Persson in Almo, Dalecarlia. Born in 1866. (Image credit: The Flickr Foundation / Swedish National Heritage Board / Photographer: Einar Erici)

As Flickr's future was at risk in 2018, and becoming increasingly uncertain (even facing potential shutdown) the MacAskill brothers, Don and Ben, came to the rescue, and acquired Flickr from Yahoo! Oates was brought back to Flickr in 2020 to help revitalize The Commons, with an aim to build something with value to the member organizations, and the open culture ecosystem.

The MacAskill pair already owned and operated the photography sales and sharing platform, SmugMug. "The idea that tens of billions of photos would just disappear – we couldn’t let that happen," explained Ben. 

"We didn't buy Flickr because we thought it was an amazing business opportunity – it was losing staggering amounts of money, and nobody else seemed interested in the potential. Instead, we bought Flickr because we've built our company around a love for photography, and we couldn't imagine an internet without Flickr."

Girl & Ice Cream | Missouri State Dessert - Ice Cream Cone, 1953 (Image credit: The Flickr Foundation / Courtesy of Missouri State Archives / Photographer: Louise Putman)

Oates re-entered with a solution to save Flickr, in creating a nonprofit foundation that would run alongside the existing photo community, and preserve online photography. 

"The foundation's mission is to make sure Flickr will be preserved for future generations," she adds. "We are already working on the idea of a very long-term outlook, while acknowledging that we don’t have enough voices in the mix yet. A major project will be the 100-year plan, and we've held several research workshops to begin to shape what such a plan should look like."

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Beth Nicholls
Staff Writer

A staff writer for Digital Camera World, Beth has an extensive background in various elements of technology with five years of experience working as a tester and sales assistant for CeX. After completing a degree in Music Journalism, followed by obtaining a Master's degree in Photography awarded by the University of Brighton, she spends her time outside of DCW as a freelance photographer specialising in live music events and band press shots under the alias 'bethshootsbands'.