This assignment would involve final discussion covering bringing all the past reading and assignments together to make final judgments about photographs. As discussed in Assignment #1, you will be confident about the identity of some photos, not quite sure about some and others will be outside of your realm of knowledge and experience. Some photos you will be certain about the general age and identity but not some specific details. For example, you may be confident a photo is an original cabinet card from the 1800s, but can’t pinpoint it to the 1870s or 1880s. You may be certain a photo is vintage, but are unsure if the less than perfect image was printed from the original negative. You may believe a photo is ‘printed later,’ but not sure how many years later. If you don’t know, you don’t know and it does no one, including yourself, any good to be more specific in your answer than warranted. Also, most collectors and dealers are specialists. Few people are experts in all areas and eras of photographs, and even fewer in all subjects in the images (baseball players, politicians, geography, etc). You aren’t expected to know everything, because no one does.
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There are a wide variety of photomechanical and digitial processes that are used to make modern original photographs and reprints (including forgeries) of old photographs. This includes photolithography, screen printing and various computer processes. Some processes make near photographic quality images, while other are easily identified as non-photographs even at naked eye level. There are too many digital processes to cover here, but this post will offer many common ones.
The old photomechanical processes photoengraving, collotype, gravure and wooddburytype were covered in assignment #7. Again, those three processes are no longer used commercially but still used today by some artists. If you identify an item as being one of those prints, that is constant with it being old.
Halftone lithographs, which can be used to reproduce color and monotone photos along with paintings and other art, are easily differentiated from real photos due to the visible dot/ink pattern under magnification. Halftone lithography has been widely used commercially to reproduce photos and art for magazines, calendars, postcards, record album covers, trading cards, posters and much much more.
Early 1900s lithographs are often aesthetically pleasing and colorful but don’t resemble real photos even at the naked eye level. They more resemble little paintings or colorized picture.
Modern photolithographs are much more photorealistic at the naked eye level, but, again, the dot ink structure under magnification gives it away.
Photolithographs can be dated by the ink consistency and color and printing patterns, but this is covered in the future other course on prints. This course is photo-centric.
Screen Printing, Seriography, Silk Screen
A screen print or serigraph won’t be mistaken for a real photograph, as it doesn’t have the photorealistic detail or quality and the artists usually aren’t trying to make photorealistic designs. As with lithography, this printing is covered more in the prints course.
Computers, including many home computers, can make high quality digital images and reproductions of old photos. Reproductions of old photos are identified by the modern paper (and no-photographic paper), ink pattern, etc. Some have dot patters, while others have line or mesh patterns. Some times the pattern can be subtle and it takes careful examination.
Many of today’s artists make original computer digital prints. Clearly, when investing in modern original digital photography, provenance, certification, photographer stamps and signatures are important. These days you can buy digital photos directly from the photographer.
More advanced photorealistic digital photos
Beyond the home computer printer, there are now much more advanced and quality digital methods to make very quality digital photos. Some have clear ink/printing patterns under the microscope, while others have barely.
Some have to be printed on specific photopaper that is identified by the branding on back. The branding will often make it clear it is a digital print (ala ‘Fuju Digial Print’)
A future short course on identifying these computer prints will be available in the future. However, if you wish to delve into the topic now, the following are some good online sources
graphicsatlas.org— and excellent all-purpose site identifying photographic and non-photographic processes. Hosted by the Rochester Institute of Technology.
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Assignment: This post is about salted paper prints, cyanotypes, platinum prints, carbon prints and gum bichromate prints. Read chapters 14 in the textbook (free pdf version here or purchase hard copy here).
Notes/highlights on these processes/photos:
Cyanotypes: Fairly common and simple to identify due to the bright blue (cyan tone). Used to make a variety of types of photos, including antique real photo postcards, snapshots, cabinet cards and CDVs. Can see paper fibers under microscope. No silvering, often lacking aging to image.
Salted paper prints: Rare and highly desirable process. Usually identified by early date (1840-1860), brownish tones and matte surface (albumen prints are usually though not always glossy). Can see paper fibers in image. Images can be blurry/mottled if printed from paper negative or sharp and clear if printed from glass negative. Can have significant deterioration to image and paper due to aging. Salted paper print images have the same texture as the paper they are printed on.
Gum bichromates have a distinct artistic/charcoal or pastel sketch look, often blurry quality distinct to other processes. Do a google search to view old and new gum bichromate photos and all their artistic designs.
Platinum prints can come in different tones, including brownish, but are often a distinctly steely black and white, They are scarce, have superior images, have matte surfaces and lack silvering that is often found on period gelatin silver and albumen prints. Matte surface gelatin silver prints are sometimes mistaken for platinum prints, but you can see the paper fibers under the microscope in the image of a platinum print but not with a gelatin-silver print. If an old platinum print was stored in contact with another piece of paper, such as in a stack of photos or a folder, there will often be a transfer image on the other sheet– a lighter ‘ghost’ image. This is a sure sign the photo is platinum print. My experience is that while platinum prints are much rarer than albumen prints and gelatin silver prints, they can be found and you likely will come across them now and then in antique stores, estate sales and the like.
Carbon prints are scare and valuable. They are glossy in the dark areas bot not the light– so the glossiness will differ in different parts of a single photo image. The paper fibers can be seen under magnification. Under strong magnification, you can sometimes pigment particles and the surface often has a textured, relief surface.
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All of these old time processes are still made, though only by artists and skilled photo enthusiasts. They are no longer used commercially. The modern subject and artistic style usually is a clear giveaway a photo is modern and, as they are sold by artists who want full credit, they are usually clearly advertised as modern creations. Also remember the always useful black light test for identifying modern paper. Modern photo paper is usually quite thick and lack aging signs.
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Reading this column I wrote for Sports Collectors Daily (opens in new page): ‘The Importance of Provenance in Collecting‘
The article is sports memorabilia-centric but the basic concepts apply to photos and most everything collected.
Many photographs or important details about the photo are identified in part by where they came from. While many photos by famous photographers have the photographers stamp for simple identification, some will have no such markings and the source will be essential to photographer identification. Perhaps a photo came from the photographer’s personal archives or a studio he worked for. Perhaps the seller is a recognized expert and his identification opinion holds great weight. I have had unstamped photos that I knew came from the photographer’s studio and, correspondence with the photographer, he said he had made them. I’ve had unstamped and unmarked news photos where I knew exactly which newspaper archives they came from. Researching images online has identified the famous photographer of a photograph.
As the article demonstrates, studying the provenance and history can uncover forgeries, altered and stolen items.
And buying from knowledgeable and known reputable sellers just makes common sense, especially when buying online and being only able to view online images. If you don’t know the seller, you can usually tell if he knows what he is talking about by reading the descriptions of all his photo auctions. And you can often quickly identify a scammer or someone who clearly has no clue. The more knowledgeable and experienced you are, the better you can judge the knowledge and experience of the seller.
The stamps and tags discussed Assignment #5 are documentation of provenance and are clearly helpful in authentication. An authentic United Press International stamp on the back of a photo shows it came from UPI.
Also, while provenance can be a great help and offer invaluable information, it can be forged or have erroneous information, so authentication involves examining the totality of an item, not just the piece of paper that accompanied it. It doesn’t matter that a letter from the estate says a photo is from the 1880s, because a Polaroid can’t be from the 1880s. The Polaroid process was invented in the 1900s. The photo itself proves the LOA wrong. Provenance can help verify a photo, but the photo can help verify the provenance. You look at the totality of the information available, and not just one detail. For an authentic item, it will all come together, each detail supporting the other. If that Polaroid was instead an abumen cabinet card from the ancestor’s local photography studio, that would support the letter from the family.
Provenance and historical details may not be necessary for authentication or add to the resale value, but are interesting. Photos are historical artifacts. Knowing a cabinet card came from Minnesota can be interesting to know.
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Assignment #10 Homework questions:
36) What is the difference between a wire photo and an original photo?
37) How do you identify a news photo as a wirephoto?
38) All other things equivalent (same subject, age, size, condition, etc), what will be worth more: a wire photo or an original new photo?
39) Describe some type of production marks that can be found on news photos and what was their purpose?
40) Some collectors like productions marks on photos and other don’t. Some take it on a case per case situation– for example, not minding notes on back but preferring the front image not to be ‘marred’ by marks. What is your personal taste?
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As you’ve already read about gelatin silver prints, stamps and tags, you already have a big start on news photos. With that information, you should have no trouble identifying and dating most news photos.
Just a few examples of news and press photos, showing why they are so popularly collected:
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