For centuries newspapers
and magazines were illustrated with etchings, engravings and
woodcuts. These 'handmade' prints required great time and effort
to make. For example an engraving printing plate was created
by the artist or craftsman using handheld metal tools to carve
the design into a steel plate.
With the invention of photography in the early 1800s, publishers
wanted to translate the great detail of a photograph onto the
printed page. The practical technology to do this would not exist
for many decades. For most of the 1800s, major newspapers and
magazines still employed professional artists and craftsmen who
made woodcuts and wood-engravings (a form of woodcut) to make
printed pictures. The hand carved printing plates often took
weeks to make. The prints were based on artist's sketches or
photographs, but lacked photographic detail. If you look at an
1870's Harper's Weekly, a popular New York magazine, you will
see that the images are attractive but resemble pen and ink sketches.
Detail of a woodcut from a
1874 Harper's Weekly
Halftone printing and the beginning
of photo-realistic images in print
As early printed pictures used lines and similar hand carved
marks to make images, they did not have the fine detail needed
to resemble photographs. The invention of the halftone printing
process, often aptly called the dot process, replaced lines with
dots, allowing for greater detail. In the process, a photographic
image is projected through a special screen, resembling a screen
door, and is projected onto a photochemically sensitized printing
plate. The screen transforms the image into a series of tiny
dots on the printing plate, which then appear in the resulting
print. These tiny dots allow for a much finer detail than engravings,
etchings and woodcuts. While halftone can't produce the quality
and detail of a real photograph it can make a realistic representation.
This process is used today to illustrate newspapers, magazines
and books, but also trading cards, advertising signs, postcards,
cereal boxes and more. If you take a strong magnifying glass
or microscope and look closely at a picture in a magazine on
your coffee table you will see that it is made up of tiny dots.
The first newspaper halftone pictures appeared in the early
1880s. Halftone pictures were slowly adopted by newspapers, magazines
and books across the world. By the early 1900s, the vast majority
of major newspapers and magazines used the process.
The Rise of News Service Photos
While magazines and newspapers have always had their own photographers
on staff, the twentieth century saw the dramatic rise of professional
news and photo services. These services, like Associated Press
and ACME Newspictures, made, gathered and supplied photographs
to magazines, newspapers, books and advertising across the country
and around the world. While the big news services had their own
photographers, they also distributed images shot by newspapers,
smaller photo services and independent photographers. These photo
services were massive, full time photo gatherers and distributors.
If you were a small daily newspaper in Oklahoma or Maine your
own staff photographers might shoot the local events- Friday's
high school football game or the county Expo. But you would need
one of the big news services to get the national and international
images and news for your paper. Even the big newspapers like
The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune used the services
of the big news services. If you look a newspaper from 1960 or
today, you will see that many of the local pictures were shot
by local staff photographers, while many of the other images
are credited to Associated Press, UPI and similar. Newspapers
and magazines also regularly received publicity or press photos
from movie studios, music companies, fashion labels and even
sports teams promoting the latest product.
As the makers of the press photos ordinarily stamped or tagged
their name on the back, a photograph's source is usually easy
to identify. As some news services had brief histories, the presence
of their stamps help date the photograph. For this reason, some
early news service's stamps will receive a higher price at auction
or sale than others. The collector will find press photos with
stamps from two or more companies, showing how the photo was
distributed. For example, an Associated Press photo may also
have the stamp of the newspaper that bought it from AP.
Stamping on the back of an original Vogue
magazine photo shows who made the photo, where and when.
The big news services often glued a paper caption tag or sheet
to the photo's back. The caption allowed the receiver to know
the who's who and what's what of the image.
Paper caption placed on the back of a 1928
Wirephotos: "overnight photos"
In the early 1900s, there was no overnight national distribution
of images. Photographs were shipped by plane, train and even
boat. While this was okay for the many popular monthly magazines,
most early daily newspapers had relatively few and dated images
While turn of the century news services could send the printed
text of a story via telephone lines ('wire') to subscribing newspapers,
they also wanted to be able send photographs in a similar way.
Originally, this was just a pipe dream. Even today the idea of
sending photographs over the telephone sounds incredible. The
invention of the wirephoto process eventually led to overnight
The wirephoto process allowed photographs to be transferred
through telephone lines. The process required a large, expensive
wirephoto machine both at the source and at the receiving end.
The original photograph was placed inside the wirephoto machine.
Much like with today's computer scanner, an electronic eye scanned
the photograph and translated it into electrical impulses. These
impulses were sent through the telephone wire to the identical
wirephoto machine at the receiving end. At the receiving machine
the impulses were translated to light that was used to develop
the image onto photographic paper. The development would take
minutes to over an hour, as the photographic paper was slowly
exposed line by line. In fact, the ultimate way to identify the
wirephoto (the received image) is to look for the tiny horizontal
or vertical lines in the image.
The result was that that the receiving newspaper had a copy
of the original photograph that it could use to make prints for
the newspaper. This wirephoto had an identical image to the original
photograph, but of lesser quality.
A wirephoto could be sent simultaneously to many receivers.
The Associated Press could put the original photograph into the
wirephoto machine and send copies to the Seattle Times, New York
Times, San Francisco Chronicle and Green Bay Press-Gazette all
at once. The Associated Press' main office in New York City could
send wirephotos to its regional office in Atlanta, and the Atlanta
office could send wirephotos to the New York City office. As
you can imagine, this made photograph distribution quicker and
more efficient than transporting a box of photos by train.
While the wirephoto process was invented in 1921, and AT &
T had it's first commercial wirephoto service in 1925, it took
at least a decade for the process to be used widely. The early
machines were large, overly expensive and the process unreliable.
The early wirephotos were usually of poor quality and hostage
to the fickleness and 'breaks' of the telephone lines. When someone
sent a wirephoto across the telephone lines, it often took more
than an hour and the sender had no idea if a recognizable image
would be received at the other end. Before 1935, wirephotos were
only used for especially important, breaking news.
In 1934 Associated Press (AP), the world's largest news service,
installed an advanced and effective wirephoto system. Starting
the following year, the wirephoto system became practical. Soon
after other major news services installed their own wirephoto
systems. This included AP's rivals International News Photos,
United Press Association and ACME Newspictures.
Though press photos were still distributed the old fashioned
way, and a newspaper and magazine still hired its own photographers,
the wirephoto system was the dominant form of international photo
distribution from 1935 until the mid 1970s.
Beyond wirephotos: laserphotos, digital, computers
While the wirephoto process was a revolution, it still was
not perfect. It was only a matter of time for the system to be
replaced by modern technology.
In the 1970s, Associated Press instituted the Laserphoto system.
This system sent images to subscribers more quickly and with
higher resolution images. Associated Press updated this system
in 1989. Full color images were transmitted at the speed of seconds
per photograph. These images were displayed on monitors and distributed
in digital form. The result was newspaper and magazine pictures
of much higher quality and the more common use of color pictures.
For collectors, laserphotos are easily identified because
of their modern period (mid 1970s-90s) and because they typically
have 'laserphoto' printed on the front.
Today, a variety of news service photos are still made, many
in full color. As with old news service photos, they often have
identifying stamps or tags on the back, or the information is
printed as part of the image on the front. Many photographs are
distributed digitally, from computer to computer, and a 'hard
copy' is never made. For example, if you are a magazine editor
and your magazine is a subscriber to Corbis, a photo service
founded by Bill Gates, you can get your images online. You log
on at the Corbis website, go through the online image libraries
and select which images you want. Corbis gives you the high quality
versions in digital form and charges you for their use. Corbis
owns many of the images, but also represents thousands of photographers,
magazines, newspapers and other organizations. For a particular
photo, part of your payment will go to Corbis and part will go
to the photographer or magazine that owns the copyright. Just
as with Associated Press or United Press in 1935, Corbis and
other modern photo services are giant clearinghouses of images
for the publishing and advertising industries.
(c) david rudd cycleback, cyclback.com
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