Photo collector turns hobby into lucrative business

(CBS News) LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- John Rogers likes sorting through his pictures. Who doesn't? But for him, it's not just a once-in-awhile diversion; it's a 'round-the-clock operation.

"I never get tired of this," John says.

For the last few years, John and his staff of about 300 have been adding to and organizing his collection of old photos. He's already got more than the Associated Press, the National Archives and the Library of Congress combined -- 160 million pictures.

If you can name it, Rogers has a picture of it: marshmallow production, a sleeping horse, people stacking eggplants, a squirrel in mid-air.

This all started when John was a kid, buying and selling old baseball cards and photos. His grandmother loaned him the start-up money and office furniture.

"He came to borrow my table and two chairs so he'd have somewhere to do his businesses," his grandmother says.

That was then. Now, it's a $16 million-a-year business. His Arkansas company takes newspaper archives from across the country and converts their rotting negatives and fading photos into digital, searchable images. The paper gets back the computer files, while John keeps the physical pictures and licensing rights.

Asked whether he considers himself a historian or a hoarder, John says he's a little of both.

"My wife would say probably a little more of a hoarder," he says. "But I feel like we're preserving, we're saving America's history."

John says the newspapers would take 300 shots of events, such as the Beatles arriving in 1964 and print one -- meaning the other 299 have never been seen. He's found priceless pictures of John F. Kennedy watching football and Fidel Castro playing baseball.

John Rogers' most valuable picture is one of his grandfather, who's now deceased, as a young Air Force lieutenant colonel.
John Rogers' most valuable picture is one of his grandfather, who's now deceased, as a young Air Force lieutenant colonel.
CBS News

His grandmother had never seen the picture.

Family histories, national treasures, and everything in between -- believe it or not, John had almost all the shots we named -- the sleeping horse, marshmallow production, a squirrel in mid-air, a guy stacking eggplants and even a squirrel with an eggplant.

But there was one shot he didn't have -- one so trivial and insignificant that not one of the newspapers had bothered to archive it.

"There's no picture of Steve Hartman," John acknowledges.

It may be time to start carrying around an eggplant.

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  • Steve Hartman

    Steve Hartman has been a CBS News correspondent since 1998, having served as a part-time correspondent for the previous two years.