Photograph Identification Guide
by David Rudd Cycleback


digital photograph of Henry

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The following are some standard terms and concepts in the genre of art and collectable photographs. Even if using different terms, a seller's description should communicate the nature of the photograph- when the photo was made, who made it, is the photo original or reprint, etc. It's all about having the potential buyer know what is the item, so she can decide if it is something she desires and, if so, what is a reasonable price.

Original: A photo where the image was printed (made) directly from the original negative or transparency (a transparency is used just like a negative, but the image is positive instead of negative). Unless otherwise indicated, the term is interpreted to mean the photo was made soon after the image was shot (vintage). All other qualities equivalent, the original will be more valuable than a reprint or later generation photo.

While an original almost always involves the original negative or transparency, there are isolated circumstances where a photograph using second generation images can be considered original. An example is a photographer who uses both original and second generation images together to create an artistic collage or composite photograph (one photograph made up of more than one photographic image). If the overall photograph is unique and artistically brand new, the photograph might be considered an original.

1890 cabinet card with a composite image made up of many smaller images. The smaller images are cutout photos, probably originally shot by the same photographer with the purpose of making this team cabinet. The cutouts were placed against a background and rephotographed. Even though the individual images are technically second generation, the overall photo is vintage, unique and fresh. Even if you don't consider it original, it is valuable due to its age and rarity.


Original by photographer, such as "Original 1930 photograph by Carl Horner." This means the photo is original and printed by or under the supervision/approval of the photographer.An "original Carl Horner" can't be made after his death or otherwise without his knowledge.

Originals can be printed under different conditions. Some were directly printed by the photographers, with many collectors considering these the most desirable. In other cases, an assistant or outside lab printed the photograph under the photographer's watchful eye. As long as the printing was done under the direction and approval of the photographer, the photographs will usually be considered originals.

Many famous photographers were employees of magazines, newspapers or news services, and the employer had much influence in the printing, size and style. Perhaps the photographer shot the images in a magazine's studio, and an art director had final say over the print's size and style. One could rightly call these originals as collaborations between photographer and publisher, or between photographer and editor. One of these photos might be labeled as "Original Sports Illustrated photograph by Herbie Scharfman" or "Original Herbie Scharfman Sports Illustrated Photo."
Many collectors specialize in photographs from famous organizations, so the fact that a photograph was made by Time magazine or for a favorite sports team may be as, if not more, significant than the name of the photographer.

In many cases it won't be clear under what exact condition and by whom the photograph was printed, as the information was lost in time or never revealed to the general public. However, the presence of the photographer's stamp usually indicates he or she was sufficiently involved and gave approval to the making of the photo. The photographer's hand signature, initial and/or notes (usually on back) is always desirable and brings a premium, in part because it proves he was involved.

Originals by famous photographers can be unstamped and unsigned, but significant provenance or expert opinion is needed to authenticate the photograph as by the photographer. Examples of significant provenance is when a photo is known to have come from the photographer's estate or the archives of a magazine the worked for.

Vintage: Made soon after the image was shot. Vintage is also used as a general term indicating something that is old, but that is not the meaning used in this book. With early photographs, say from the 1870s and 1880s, the photograph can still have value even if the image is later generation. Many 1880s Old Judge baseball and boxing cards have second generation images, though they are mostly collected as sports cards, not photographs.

Printed Later: A photograph that was made a lengthy time after the image was shot, e.g. "The image was shot in 1930 and printed in the 1970s." Printed later photos include unauthorized home computer printer reprints and high quality examples made by the photographer or significant organization.

As when the image was printed often affects the value and desirability, the seller should always make clear when a photo is printed later. In some cases, an exact print date can be given ("Shot in 1955. Printed in 1975"). In many cases, only a general time period can be given ("I'm not sure when this photo was made, but it appears to be printed some time later.")
Most printed later photos are identified quickly by the experienced collector. The photo may have a modern stamp, or be made with a modern process or be on obviously modern paper. Many printed later photos simply look too new to be vintage or have poor images that are obviously later generation.

Original Printed Later means the image was printed from the original negative, but a period after the image was shot.

Original printed later photographs by famous photographers. Many famous photographers made high quality 'printed later' photographs. This includes George Hurrell, Ansel Adams, Richard Avedon, Clarence Sinclair Bull and Horst P. Horst. Some of these photographs were made in limited editions and are signed and/or stamped by the photographer. These photos can fetch high prices in auction. However, some collectors are only interested in the vintage photos. A specialist in Silent Era Hollywood memorabilia may only be interested in artifacts from the 1910s-20s. Most sports collectors are only interested in vintage photos. It's a matter of personal taste.

These high end printed later photographs are usually easy to identify as modern by the experienced collector. Many photos are generally known to be printed later. Quality dealers and auctioneers will accurately describe the photo. Often times the modern date is printed or written on the photo or accompanying certificate of authenticity or other documentation. A 1920s image printed many years later will usually be clearly modern by the modern appearance, including modern paper.

Instead of, or in conjunction with, the photographer, an organization with rights to the image sometimes produced original printed later images. These organizations include magazines and photo services like Associated Press or United Press International. These organizations keep archives of the original negatives and often held or shared exclusive rights to the images.

This is the stamp on the back of a Marilyn Monroe photograph shot by Philippe Halsman. Considering Monroe died in 1962 and the stamp is copyrighted 1981, it should be obvious that the photo is not vintage. Also notice that the photo is limited edition numbered.

Later Generation, Second Generation. This means the photograph is not original and usually not vintage. A photograph of a photograph, or a photograph made from a copy negative is later generation. The images won't be as clear as the original and often are of obviously inferior quality. Later generation photos include illegal cheapo reprints, along with legitimate photos issued by news services, magazines, movie studios and photo services. All other things equivalent, a later generation photograph will be worth less than the original.

Official. In particular with modern photos and photos shot by famous photographers, it's best for the collector to stick to 'official' photographs, or photographs that were 'officially printed.'

A photograph is official if it was made in legitimate circumstances by or under authorization of the copyrights holder. An original photograph from a magazine's archives with the magazine's copyright stamp is official. A United Press International photo with the UPI stamp and tag is official. A 30 years later reprint authorized by the photographer or her estate is official. The snapshot you shot at the company picnic and had developed at the drug store is official.

An official photo doesn't mean it has to be rare or original or expensive or the photographer is famous, but that it's legitimate.

If someone without permission downloads a scan from a website, prints out 1,000 copies on her computer printer, these reprints are not official. If someone owns no reproduction rights to the David Bailey negative he bought on eBay, any prints he makes are not only unofficial but possibly illegal if sold. In most cases unofficial photos have little to no long term value or standing within the hobby.

A portion of the photos on eBay are unauthorized, with many being home computer prints. If you spend $5 on one of these reprints of a movie star so you can tape it to your refrigerator, that's one thing. If you spend thousands of dollars on them as investments, you will likely be in for an unpleasant surprise.
Officialness is less of a concern with antique photographs by lesser known photographers. These photos have an inherent degree of legitimacy as their populations are set. Whether it was official or unofficial at the time of making, no one can make anymore of those 1890s cabinet cards or 1935 real photo postcards.

With time and experience, the collector will get a good feel for what is legitimate and what is not. The photographer or organization's stamp or tag or knowing where it came from (provenance) will identify the photo as legitimate. Dealing with quality sellers and getting second opinions are also important. Quality sellers avoid illegal items and communicate the nature of the item being offered. Contact the seller if you need clarification. main

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