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Standard Photographic Processes/Prints

 

Early 1900s cyanotype.  The cyanotype photographic print

is easy to recognize due to its bright blue (cyan) tone.

 

 

Photographic process: The way in which a photographic image is made.  A particular photographic process is distinguished by its unique use of chemicals, substances and methods.

 

 Photographic print: The photographic image on paper that is made by the photographic process.  A Kodak snapshot or 8x10” press photo is an example of a photographic print. 

 

 “Offered for sale here is an 1940 Cecil Beaton gelatin-silver print.”

“Original c-type color photo shot for Harper’s Bazaar by Tony Frissell.  Her stamp on back”

“Circa 1860 albumen cabinet card photograph of Abraham Lincoln by Mathew Brady”

“I made this cibachrome photograph of some plants in my garden.  I developed it myself in my basement darkroom.”

 

The vast majority of photographs, fashion or other, are photographic prints on paper.  This includes the snapshots in your family album, 8x10 studio photos, Associated Press wirephotos and that Ansel Adams you saw in the museum.

Photography is the process of creating an image on a sensitized surface by interaction with light or other radiant energy.  Over history there have been many different processes to make photographic prints.  A particular process and its print share the same name.  The gum bichromate print was produced by the gum bichromate process; the platinotype process produced the platinotype print.

Some processes were used long ago, some recently, some had long durations, some short, some processes were widely used, others never caught on.  Each process produces a unique print that can be identified.  Aspects such as color, surface texture and type of aging help us distinguish one type of print from another.  The images can be examined under a microscope by an expert to uncover tiny clues. 

Some prints are desired by collectors over others due to their rarity and/or high quality of the images.

The following is a look at the major forms of photographic prints used from the 1800s to today.  Except as specifically noted, the prints will normally be found on paper.  The processes are presented in alphabetic order.  Even if you aren’t going to try to memorize and study each process, you can use this chapter as a quick reference for when you see a “dye transfer” or “platinum print” in auction or at a gallery.

The most common photographic prints the collector will come across are the albumen print (1800s), gelatin-silver (20th century black & white) and chromogenic or c-type (20th century color photos).  These three make of well over 90 percent photographic prints you will come across.  The other prints range from rare and expensive (Calotype, ivorytype) to uncommon but obtainable (cyanotype, platinum prints).

 

 

    

  ALBUMEN

 

Key: Most common form of photographic print from the 1860s-90s.  Limited numbers made into the early 1900s.  Known for its sepia, soft images.  Due to the thin paper, albumen prints had to be mounted to a heavy backing.

 

 While there were other types of photographs in the 1800s, the albumen print was by far the most common form of paper photograph around the world. Nearly all mid to late 1800s paper photographs are albumen.  Even non-collectors associate horse-and-buggy and Wild West images with the soft, sentimental tones that were produced by the albumen process.

During its 19th century heyday, the albumen process was used by a wide range of photographers and for a wide range of photos. It was used by famous photographers and obscure small town studios. It was used to make the priceless photo hung today in a Paris or New York City museum and the little 1880s century real photo trading cards found on eBay, official portraits of Queen Victoria and many of the photos in the family collections. This means that, by studying the cabinet card of your great great uncle or that $2 cabinet you bought at a flea market, you are also studying the qualities of the Mathew Brady in a Sotheby’s auction and the Lewis Carroll in a Christie’s auction.

 

The typical soft sepia tones of an albumen print

 

The albumen process was time-consuming and difficult in the extreme compared to modern photography. Most practitioners were well-trained professionals with a working knowledge of chemistry. Except for a few technically gifted and wealthy hobbyists, there were no amateur photographers as in the 19th century.

One of the distinct qualities of 1800s albumen prints is that they are on super thin paper. The paper was so thin and delicate that the prints had to be mounted.  This means that the photographic print was pasted to a heavy backing (the mount). Usually the backing is a sheet of cardboard, but albumen prints can also be found mounted in or on books, programs and other items. Usually, the mount is larger that the albumen print. 

Albumen photographs were made in a wide range of sizes and styles, often related to the era that they were made. The mount can range from 1x1 inches to over 20 x 20 inches, but the typical sizes are the carte de visite or CDV (a bit bigger than a driver's license) and the cabinet card (a larger version of a the CDV).  The mount is typically rectangular, but can come in other shapes. The mounts also come in a variety of colors. The design, including color, help the expert assign a general date different as different designs were used at different times.

The albumen images are usually well aged. This includes the common sepia or yellowish tone, often along with fading of the image details in areas and foxing (brown/red age spots). Particularly due to different storage, the severity and type of aging will vary. For collectors, albumen photos are best stored away from light, excessive heat and humidity. An example of excessive heat is storing them next to a radiator.  When originally made, albumen images were not sepia but closer to a grey.  You will sometimes find examples that were well stored and retain the original colors.  Albumen images are often glossy.

Some albumen prints have a distinct effect called ‘silvering.’ Silvering is when it appears as if the silver has come to surface of the image.  If it exists, it is more noticeable at the edges and in the dark areas of the image, when viewed at a specific angle to the light.  If you change the angle of the photo to the light source, the silvering will be come brighter and darker, sometimes disappearing.  It can range in intensity.  Sometimes it is only revealed under close examination when holding the photo nearing a 180 degree to a light.  Other times it is obvious at first glance.  Silvering also appears on early 1900s gelatin silver prints.  The key for collectors is that silvering is an aging process. In other words, the knowledgeable collector knows a photograph with natural silvering is many years old.

 

 

 

AUTOCHROME

 Key: The first true color photograph.  Image is on a pane of glass.  Used 1907-30s.  Scarce and desirable on the market.

 

The autochrome was the first practical true color photograph.  The autochrome was not a paper photograph, but a transparent image on a pane of glass.  The image is usually dark as compared to today's color photographs.  If unfaded, it has rich, pastel colors.  Under close inspection, the image is made up of a mosaic pattern of red, green and blue grains.  The photo size ranges from about 2 inches square to well over 8”x10.”  Many images are faded and discolored. 

There were closely related color glass photos around the same time with different brand names.  These glass photos are scarce on the market and quality examples fetch strong prices.

 

early 1900s autochrome

 

 

 Calotypes AND SALT PRINTs

 

 Key: Invented in 1841, the earliest form of photographic print.  Made until the late 1880s.  Examples are scarce and usually expensive on the market.

 

 Salt Prints were made either with a paper negative or a glass negative.  The print made from a paper negative is called a calotype.  The grain from the paper negatives sometimes appears in the calotype image.  The calotype images lack detail, and the fuzzy quality was usually used for romantic or distant shots.   The salt prints made from a glass negative have a clearer image.  

The salt print images are often purplish, brown/yellow or brown/red.   The images show signs of age, including fading and foxing (brown/red age spots).  The damage is often severe. 

Introduced in 1841, the calotype was the first paper photograph.  Invented in 1839, the first practical photograph was the Daguerreotype, with an image on a mirror-like silver coated sheet of copper. The calotype and salt prints were used until the early 1860s.  There was a brief revival in the 1890s.

         These prints are held in high esteem today as rare and historically significant.  Even rough examples are expensive.  Early calotypes are extremely rare and desirable.

 

 

 

 CARBON PRINT

 

 Key: Popular in late 1800s century and early 1900s.  High quality image.

 

 The early carbon prints are well known for images superior to the contemporary and more widely used albumen and gelatin-silver prints.  They can come in a variety of colors.  Carbon prints have a subtle relief affect on the image surface which can be seen when held at a near 180 degree angle under the correct light.  If held at a certain angle to the light, the shadows of the image should appear shinier than the highlights.  The prints usually do not have the same degree of damage and aging as albumen and gelatin-silver prints. In the 1800s, carbon prints were often mounted to a larger sheet of cardboard.

The carbon print is similar in appearance to the 1800s photomechanical process called the Woodburytype.  Luckily, the Woodburytype prints typically have the word ‘Woodburytype’ printed just below the image.

The carbon print was invented in 1864 and used until the 1930s.  The process is occasionally used today.  Along with the platinum print, the carbon print is considered by collectors and historians to be the pinnacle of the period’s photography.  They are scarce on the market.

 

 

  Chromogentic / C-Type

 

 Key: The most common form of color photo.  Used from 1930s to today.  Tendency to fade or discolor making it less desirable for display.

 

 Though you may never have heard of the name before, you are familiar with chromogenic photos, also known as c-types, and have owned hundreds if not thousands.  Well over ninety nine percent of color photographs are chromogenic.  This includes 8x10” glossies that celebrities autograph, color family snapshots, graduation photos and color vacation slides.  When in doubt, it’s safe to assume a color photo is chromogenic. 

Chromogenic photos were introduced in the 1930s, though didn’t become popular until later.  Color photos from the 1940s, for example, are limited on the market.  Due to the tendency for the chromogenic to fade and discolor, they are often not suitable for displays.  For color displays, artists favor dry-transfer, cibachrome and giclee.  These images are more permanent.

Older chromogenic photos are on fiber based paper.  This means that the back (not the front) of the photo has papery, fibery feel— as opposed to the plasticy feel of the recent color photos you own.  By the late 1960s, chromogenic photos were typically made on ‘resin coated’ paper for color photos.  Resin coated paper has that glossy, plasticy feel.  

 

 

 

 Cibachrome

 

 Key: High quality color photos with a unique ultra-glossy finish. Used 1960s to today.

 

 Cibachromes, also known as Ifachromes, are known fortheir high quality and long lasting images and are often used by fine art photographers and for exhibition and museum displays.  They were introduced in 1963 and are still used today.  They are cheaper to make than dye transfers and are more common on the market.  The colors have a depth that can give them a near 3-dimentional quality.  They are on resin-coated paper— meaning they are plasticy/glossy on front and back.  The images often have an amazing ultra-glossy, diamond-like and sometimes liquid appearing surfaces.  Avoid touching the image, as fingerprints show up easily. 

All other qualities equivalent, cibachromes will be more expensive and much rarer than the common color photo.

 

 

         CYANOTYPE

 

Key: Distinct blue image.  Most popular in the 1800s and early 1900s, though still used today on a limited basis.

 

 There is no mistaking the cyanotype or 'blueprint' processes, due to its brilliant blue color. It is an antique process that is still used today by some artists.  The paper has a matte finish, front and back, and the images do not tend to fade or otherwise deteriorate.  Though able to create fine detail, the soft blue tones tend to give the images a dreamlike quality.

 

 

 DYE TRANSFER

 

 Key: High end and scarce form of color photography. Used by famous photographers and museums. Superior images and expensive to make.

 

 Many photographers and collectors consider dye transfer to be the highest form of color photography.  The images are of unparalleled quality and depth and do not fade.  Many photographs you find in a Sotheby’s auction or major museum are dry transfers.  This includes many of Bert Stern’s famous portraits of Marilynn Monroe and Harold Edgerton’s super high speed photos (bullet going through playing card, dripping milk).  Introduced in 1945, only a handful of people in the world still make dye transfers.  Unlike the cibachrome, the dye transfer photo paper is fiber based (not plasticy/glossy).

All other qualities equivalent, dye-transfers will be a lot more expensive than the common C-Type photo.

 

 

 Gelatin silver

 

 Key: By far the most common black and white photo, regularly used from the late 1800s-today.  Used by for common purposes (family snapshots) and by world famous photographers.

 

 The vast majority of 1900s black and white photographs are gelatin silver prints.  It was used to make many real photo postcards and the vintage snapshots in your family album.  It was also used by famous photographers, including Ansel Adams, Richard Avedon and David Bailey.  Despite the ‘commonness’ of the process, it can produce high quality images with great detail.  It is still used today, and collectors will find many examples in auction and sale. 

 

1951 Victoria Station, London.  Gelatin-silver print by Toni Frissell

 

Early gelatin-silver prints

Though the gelatin silver process is still used, the experienced collector can verify vintage examples.

         Many early gelatin silver photographs have stark black and white images.  However, many vintage gelatin silver images are found with sepia tones, sometimes closely resembling 1800s albumen prints.  This sepia tinge is most often caused by the toning of the paper, but was sometimes intentionally created by the photographer.  

Many original vintage gelatin silver images have rich and subtle tones, sometimes with hints of blue or green.  Many modern reprints of antique images stand out like sore thumbs, because the image is too starkly black and white.

Though not so thin as the 1800s albumen paper, early gelatin silver paper is thin.  The earlier the thinner.  Gelatin silver paper from the late 1890s is nearly as thin as albumen paper.  The modern  ‘double weight’ paper was not popularly used until 1940.  An example of double weight paper is the typical modern autographed 8x10 photo. 

Most vintage gelatin silver paper (as seen on the back of the photo) will be off white and often with toning and foxing.  Counter to logic, however, the earliest  examples typically have bright white paper, though still with occasional foxing, soiling and other discoloration.  The earliest paper was handmade without wood pulp.  Wood pulp, introduced to later photo paper production, is what makes later photos and newspapers turn brown.  The earliest handmade gelatin silver paper was naturally white and, since there was no wood pulp, did not tone with age.  This means that you should not be distressed if the paper on your 1903 photo is so much brighter than on your 1920s photos. 

Some early gelatin silver prints are mounted to cardboard backings, including as the popular cabinet card.  The cardboard mounts will typically have the photographer’s stamp on back and/or front.

When judging the age of a gelatin silver print, one of the key and straight forward things to look for is silvering in the darkest areas.  Most, though not all, early gelatin silver prints have some degree of silvering.  Silvering can sometimes be found on photos from as recent as the 1950s, but silvering is most commonly and distinctly found on early gelatin silver photographs.  Silvering is less likely to appear on photos with underexposed images. 

If you are considering buying a $500 1915 photograph and the image has silvering, that’s a very, very good sign that the photo is old.  

 

 

 Gum Bichromate

 

 Key: Most popular at the turn of the 20th century.  Still used today by artists.  Known for their artistically manipulated images.

 

 The gum bichromate process was used for artistic purposes and gave the photographer unprecedented control over the image.  Due to artistic manipulation, these photo do not have the detail of most photographs and often resemble charcoal or crayon drawings. Brush strokes can sometimes be seen on the surface.  Many colors could be used, and the image lacks the aging problems of many other processes. 

Early gum bichromate prints are rare, highly desirable and usually expensive.  The process was replaced by the bromoil process.

 

 

 IVORYTYPE

 

 Key: rare 1800s photograph printed on fake ivory and often hand colored to look like a painting.

 

The rare ivorytype was a photographic image made on fake ivory.  It usually was hand painted to have the appearance of a miniature painting, and was often housed in a cases or frame.  It was invented in London in 1855 and was most popular in the mid to late 19th century.

 

OPALTYPE

 

 Key: Scarce 1800s photographic print on white opaque glass.  Often hand tinted or colored.

 

 The opaltype is similar in appearance to the early ambrotype and was popular in the late 1800s.  It has a photographic image on a pane of glass.  While the ambrotype used clear or tinted glass, the opaltype used opaque white glass giving the opal appearance.  The photographic image is a stark black and white, but was usually hand tinted or colored.  This opaltype is prone to breaks to the glass and smudging of the paint. 

 

 

 

 OROTONE

 

 Key: Vintage photo with the image printed on a pane of glass backed in gold.  Easy to identify due to its golden tone.

 

 The orotone, also known as goldtone and Curtistone, is similar in appearance to an ambrotype— with the image on a pane of glass, except the back of the glass is painted with real gold.  This gives the picture a distinct golden appearance.  These were prominent in the late 1880s and first few decades of the 1900s.  Modern versions are made today.  Orotones were usually housed in special frames or cases.

The most famous practitioner of this process was Edward Curtis, a turn of the century Seattle photographer.  He produced thousands of orotones of Native Americans.

 

 

 

 Platinum Print / Platinotype

 

Key: High quality, used in the fine arts.  Popularly used at the turn of the 20th century, though artists still make them today. 

 

 The platinum print, or platinotype, has a matte surface and a soft grey-black or slightly bluish-black image color.  A few may have browns. The platinum print is know for its superior image quality with great detail.  The blacks are usually pitch black and the grays are silvery.  The tones are soft and delicate.

         Vintage platinum prints usually did not deteriorate as did the albumen, gelatin-silver and salt prints.  The platinum print is sometimes mistaken for the Calotype.  The Calotype, however, is likely to be faded and damaged, and the subjects are from an earlier era.

The platinum print came into popular use around the turn of the 20th century.  Its use declined following the World War I, though examples can be found dating to about 1930. Along with the carbon print, the platinum print is considered to be the zenith of prints of the era.  It was an expensive and difficult process, used for special occasions.  It was used by professional photographers rather than amateurs.  Modern variations are used today by artists.  Today's collectors consider this process superior to the contemporary gelatin-silver process, and the photos are priced accordingly.

 

 

 

 Polaroid

 

Key: Instant, self developing photos invented in the 1960s

 

Polaroids are those popular instant self developing photographs, and usually have a physical appearance distinct from other photos.  Though there were other brands of instant self-developing photos, the brand name Polaroid, recently taken over by Fuji, has always constituted most of the market. 

Polaroids were introduced in 1963 and are still used today.  Polaroids have been used in daily life (family picnic snapshots),  professional use (dentists, police work) and in the fine arts.  Fashion photographers sometimes used Polaroids as lighting tests before the formal shoot.  The collector will occasionally find a fashion test Polaroid on the market.

Polaroids are usually small, but can be gigantic.  At their best Polaroids have beautiful, rich colors.  The paper is resin-

coated (plasticy feel on front and back).  Polaroids have a distinct white border, many with a wider bottom border.  The image area will have a different gloss than the surrounding white border.  The image will have a gloss, while the border will be matte.

To a large degree, Polaroids are self authenticating.  This is due to their one-of-one, on the spot development.  Almost every Polaroid is vintage to the subject in the image, original and unique.

The Polaroid transfer is an experimental, fine art manipulation of the Polaroid

 

Typical sized 1994 Fuji Polaroid of a 16 year old Bridget Hall photographed by Gilles Bensimon.  Used as a lighting test in the creation of Hall’s 1995 calendar.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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