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Photograph Identification Guide
by David Rudd Cycleback

Chapter 8: GELATIN-SILVER PRINTS: THE MOST COMMON 1900s BLACK & WHITE PHOTOS

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Early 1900s gelatin silver real photo postcard. Exhibits the steely yet subtle tones common to gelatin silver prints. The bottom has light silvering that helps establish that photograph as vintage.

 

Commonly used late 1890s to today

Gelatin silver prints were by far the most common form of black and white photograph from the late 1890s to today. If you own a 1930s movie still photo or a 1950s wirephoto, you own a gelatin silver photograph. If you go to a museum exhibit of photographs by famous early 20th century photographers, many to most will likely be gelatin silver prints. Those 1940s black and white snapshots and real photo postcards in your family albums are more than likely gelatin silver.

 

Early gelatin silver prints

While gelatin silver photographs were commonly used for many years and are made today, early examples have distinct qualities that help the collector to identify their old age. With hands on experience the collector will rarely be fooled by a modern reprint of a turn of the 20th century subject. The early photos have a distinct, antique look and feel. In a pile of antique photos, the recently made photo will usually stand out like a sore thumb.

Many gelatin silver photographs have stark black and white images, distinct to the sepia tones of an albumen print. 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.

As exemplified by the photo of at the start of this chapter, many original vintage gelatin silver images have rich and subtle tones, sometimes with hints of blue or green. Many modern reprints stand out like sore thumbs, because the image is too starkly black and white.

Though not as thin as 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 introduced until around the 1930s. An example of double weight paper is the typical modern autographed 8x10 photo. The notable exception to the early thin paper rule are real photo postcards, which are sometimes on heavier stock.

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 intuition, 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.

 

1910s photo showing the sepia tones possible with early gelatin silver prints.

Many early gelatin silver prints are mounted in similar fashion to albumen prints. Many to most are unmounted (plain paper photograph with no cardboard backing). This means it is possible to find a 1908 gelatin silver photo both mounted as a cabinet card and unmounted like a modern snapshot.

Unlike albumen prints, the paper fibers in the gelatin silver print cannot be seen under a microscope. The gelatin silver photos have a thin layer of gelatin on the front image area. The gelatin was used to hold the necessary photographic chemicals to the paper. While transparent, the gelatin obscures the paper fibers from view (On some early, circa 1890s examples, the fibers can barely be seen). When viewing under a microscope, you may see the uneven surface of the gelatin. With experience this surface is easily distinguished from paper fibers.

When judging the age of a gelatin silver print, one of the key and straight forward things to look for is silvering. Most, though not all, early gelatin silver prints have some degree of silvering. Silvering can sometimes be found on photos from as late as the 1950s (these of course are many decades old themselves), 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 good sign.

Gelatin silver prints with white borders usually date from the 1910s and later. Before, the photos almost always have full bleed images.


circa 1920 gelatin silver print with heavy silvering in the dark areas. This silvering helps establish the photo as old.

 

Summary of Early Gelatin Silver Prints

* Most 1900s black & white photos are gelatin silver prints.
* Gelatin silver prints could be mounted (like a cabinet card) or unmounted. Most are unmounted.
* It was easier to make larger sizes than with the albumen process, so oversized gelatin silver prints are more common. Extremely large sizes still receive a premium.
* The paper is thin, though not as thin as albumen paper
* The images can be black and white or with a sepia tone. The images are often rich and subtle in tone.
* The turn of the century gelatin silver paper can be bright white, in later years it is usually off white to heavily toned.
* The images commonly have silvering. Silvering is an aging process, which means a photo with silvering is old.
* Many unmounted photos have the photographer's stamp, which helps date and authenticate the photograph.
* White borders strongly suggests that the photo is from the 1910s or after.
* Unlike with the albumen print, the paper fibers cannot be seen in the image area under a microscope.

 

Later to Recent Gelatin Silver Prints

By the 1930s-40s, gelatin silver prints were often on much thicker paper. Almost all modern photos are on substantially thicker and sturdier paper than the first gelatin silver prints. Gelatin silver prints from the 1930s-40s, and sometimes even into the 1950s, can have light silvering that shows it's old. Starting in the late 1960s, resin coated paper was introduced. Resin coating gives the front and back of the photo paper a smooth and plasticy feel. Though the resin coating proves a photograph is modern, some modern photos still have the traditional fibery/papery back. Older gelatin silver prints will often have light to heavy toning showing its age. Recent photos are often distinctly bright white.

Within the Post World War II era it is not always easy to judge the exact age of the paper and image. The difference between 1950s and 1960s photo paper, for example, is minor at best. The stamps, tags or other marks on the photo's back are often necessary to date a modern photo. Also, photos can be judged as later generation by their image quality and photobranding. As shown in a later chapter, black lights can be used identify many modern photos.


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