photos guide Judging the Authenticity of Photographs

© david rudd cycleback,


Photomechanical Prints

(Not Real Photographs)


1936 Vogue magazine with a photoengraving

cover shot by Steichen


As discussed earlier, photomechanical prints are not genuine photographs but ink and printing press prints.  This chapter looks at some standard photomechanical processes used from the 1800s to today.








Photolithography, or half-tone lithography, is a form of lithography used to make a wide variety of photorealistic images.  You have owned thousands of photolithographs.  For decades photolithography has been used to make the images for posters, postcards, books, magazines, cereal boxes, brochures, maps and countless other commercial products. 

Photolithographs are made up of a fine pattern of printed dots.  These dots are visible under a strong magnifying glass or microscope.  For black and white prints the dots are black.  For color prints there will be a variety of color dots.  Under microscopic magnification, the dots appear like splotches of paint or color glue.  Digital computer prints, including giclees, closely resemble half-tone lithographs.

Photolithography is a commercial form of printing and is typically used for large print runs.  If you find a photolithograph, it is safe to assume many identical prints were made.









Photoengraving, or half-tone relief, was an old time commercial printing method.  In the early to mid 1900s, photoengraving was used to make the images for magazines, newspapers, advertising posters and many trading cards and postcards. 

As with photolithography, a photoengraving produces a realistic image that is made up of a fine series of dots.  These dots are visible with a strong magnifying glass.  The dots can be one color or, for color prints, a variety of colors

Under a microscope of 50x or more power, photoengraving is easily distinguished from photolithography.  The ink pattern has a distinct dark rim or edge.  In areas the ink pattern will resemble a waffle. 



Microscopic view of photoengraving with

the dark edge and waffle-like pattern


If you see the distinct microscopic photoengraving ink pattern on  a commercial print, like a poster or calendar, this is very strong evidence that the print is old.   Photoengraving was discontinued for commercial uses many years ago.







Collotype was a photomechanical process popular in the early 1900s.  It was versatile and produced high quality images on many types of paper.  Some examples can be difficult to distinguish from photographs.

The images can be in any color and usually have a matte surface.  Under the microscope, the ink pattern in the image is reticulated, meaning that it appears like a mosaic with similar size pieces of irregular shapes.  Sometimes it resembles a bowl of macaroni noodles.   Some collotypes were varnished, making it difficult to see the reticulation even under magnification.

Many early 1900s postcards and movie lobby cards were collotypes.  Postcards with ‘Albertype’ printed on back are collotypes and usually date to the earlier 1900s.  The process is sometimes used in the fine arts.

Most sports collotypes are many years old, as the process was discontinued for commercial use years ago.



Microscopic view of a 1920s collotype movie lobby

card showing the distinct reticulated pattern






Screen Printing,

Seriography, Silk Screen


Screen printing, also known as seriography and silk-screen, is a relatively recent form of printing popular in the fine arts.  Based on an ancient form of printing called stenciling, screen printing was developed about 1890 and popularly adopted by artists in the 1960s.

Screen prints are known for their bright ‘pop art’ colors and designs, and can incorporate photo realistic images, called photo-stencils.  A mesh is used in the process, and this mesh does not allow for the fineness of other prints.  Screen prints can be difficult to distinguish from lithographs.  A print can often be identified as a screen print when the pattern of the mesh appears in the printed ink.

Screen prints won’t be mistaken for real photographs as screen prints can’t produce photographic detail and commonly have bright comic-book colors.

Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol were two of the most famous screen printers. 







PHOTOGRAUVE (Gravure, Rotogravure)


Photogravure, also known as gravure and rotogravure, is a process known for its excellent image quality and detail.  It was invented in the late 1800s and is still used today by fine artists.  The surface is matte and the image can come in any color.  The print was created by using heavier ink to create the dark image areas and less ink to create the light areas. Great pressure was used to squeeze the ink onto the paper, and a plate mark may exist on the paper.  A plate mark appears as a pressed in area just larger than the printed image, and is created by the printing pressure.  Sometimes this mark was trimmed off. Antique photogravures sometimes have images that are faded and with foxing.

Under the microscope, an irregular, often speckled ink pattern exists.  A variation of the photogravure called the rotary photogravure (‘rotogravure) was produced on a cylinder.  The ink on the photogravure image is set up in an even grid with dots of ink surrounded by intersecting white lines.  This pattern is similar to that in photoengraving and photolithography.

Gravure was most commonly used in the old days, so gravure printing is consistent with a sports print being old.  Many old newspapers had special rotogravure picture sections, including pictures of sports stars. 








The Woodburytype, called photglyphie by the French, was a 1800s process capable of highest quality images. They are nearly identical in visual appearance to the carbon print photograph described in an earlier chapter. Unlike other photomechanical processes, the Woodburytype has no printed ink pattern.

Most Woodburytypes were used as book illustrations, and cannot be larger than 11" by 14."  Some can be mounted, including as cabinet cards.   Woodburytype’ is commonly printed just below the image.

If you find a Woodburytype, you know it’s old, as the process was only used in the later 1800s. 

Woodbury-Gravure is a similar process also only used in the 1800s.  It usually has the name printed beneath the image.


Cabinet Card with a Woodburytype print of Buffalo Bill Cody.  

As is typical ‘Woodburytype’ is printed below the print.







Computer printing is used today in both our normal lives and in the fine arts.   While there have been numerous processes used in the past several decades, this section focuses on the two most commonly used: electrostatic printing and ink jet printing.  The popular giclee process is a type of ink jet printing.


Electrographic Printing:  Laser Printer, Photocopier and Xerox

Large numbers of reproductions have been made using these printers, all of which use electrostatic or electrographic printing. Under the microscope, the resulting prints are easily identified. The lines are made up of many tiny dust-like grains of pigment that have been fused to the electostically charged area. However, not all the grains make it to the intended area, so the print is identified by the many stragglers outside the lines. It looks like it needs a dusting.


Microscopic view of a laser computer print,

showing the unique ‘dusty’ ink pattern


Inkjet , including Giclee

Today’s inkjet printer can produce attractive color and black and white reproductions, and can be printed on many surfaces. There are a variety of types, all squirting the ink onto paper surface. Under the microscope, the image is made up of a fine dot pattern closely resembling a photolithograph.

The giclee, or iris print, is a fancy type of inkjet printing often used in the fine arts.  High quality reproductions of paintings, photographs and prints can be made. It can print on a variety of papers, from matte to glossy to canvas.  As the images are resistant to fading and deterioration, the process is used to make many limited edition display photographs.  Famous photographers who have made giclees include Richard Avedon, William Weldman, Walter Chin and David Hockney.      photos guide Judging the Authenticity of Photographs

© david rudd cycleback,