Photograph Identification Guide
by David Rudd Cycleback


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Many press photos have stamping or similar identification marks on the back and occasionally on the front. Most stamps identify the maker or issuer of the photograph. This can include the news service, newspaper, photographer, music label, fashion company or television studio. The stamp often includes a variety of information, such as address, copyright information and terms of use ("To be used in magazine or newspaper only. Not for advertising"). The vast majority of stamps are in ink, but dry stamps (embossed/pressed in without ink) are occasionally found.

A company's stamp can help date a photograph to a general era, but usually won't give a precise date. For example, if a photograph has the old time 'Bain News Service' stamp, this won't by itself say the photograph was from 1915 or 1923, but it will prove that the photograph is old, as the company went out of business decades ago. If other information, such as the physical qualities of the paper and image and the caption tag suggests the photograph is from 1949, the vintage ACME stamp won't prove that particular date but is consistent with a photograph from that time.

Especially in the early years there were many news services, large and small, including countless local newspapers. On an old photograph you will occasionally find a stamp for a photo service or other company that you have never heard of before and that went out of business many decades ago.

Below are some most common US news and photo services.

ACME Newspictures: 1923 to 1950s. Early on known as United Newspictures. Was bought out by United Press in the 1950s.
Associated Press (AP). AP Photos started in 1927, still exists. AP wirephotos existed 1935-1970s. AP Laserphotos 1970s-90.
Bain News Service, 1898-1940s. One of the earlier news services. Founded by famous photographer George Grantham Bain. Many of Bain's photos are snapshot sized.
Central Press Association, of Cleveland, existed for many years starting in the early 1900s. Their stamp often includes the date, which makes for easy dating of their photos.
Culver Pictures Inc, of New York City, was formed in the early 1900s and exists today. This means the Culver stamp can appear on both an early and a modern photo. Culver bought out much of the Bain News Service archives, so many Bain photos can also have a Culver stamp.
International News Photos, a division of International News Service (INS). This started in the early 1900s and, in 1958, merged with United Press (UP) to become United Press International (UPI).
Keystone View Company, New York. Existed in the early 1900s. Also famous for their commercially sold stereoview photographs.
N.A.E. Synonymous with ACME Newspictures. An ACME photo will often also have an N.A.E. stamp. The N.A.E. stamp exists on vintage photos.
Pacific & Atlantic Photos: Existed briefly before World War II.
Underwood & Underwood, aka Underwood. 1898-1955.
United Press (UP) or United Press Association (UPA). This started in the early 1900s and, in 1958, merged with INS to become UPI
Universal Press International (UPI), 1958 - Today.
World Wide Photos, End date is unknown, but the stamp is commonly found on old photographs.

Looking at the just listed news services and their dates of existence, you can see why some stamps will give a boost in price. While AP existed for a long time, collectors know that a Keystone View or International News Photos stamp assures that the photograph is old.

Some photos will not have stamps, either because they faded away or were never placed on the back. This can make it difficult to identify their source and even whether or not they press photographs.

Sometimes a photograph has different stamps. For example, there can be a stamp for the photographer and a stamp for the news service he worked for. If a news service obtained the archives of an out of business news service or photographic archives, a photograph can have stamps from two different time periods.

With some exceptions, if there is a UPI stamp on the photograph without an earlier stamp or original caption tag (see next chapter), it is safest to assume the photograph was made 1958 or after.

If an address in the stamp has a 5 digit zip code, the stamp itself is from 1962 or after. The 5 digit zip code was introduced in the US in 1962.

If there are two stamps on a photograph and one conflicts in date with the other, the earlier date is the most reliable. For example, if a photograph was both a new UPI and an old ACME stamp, it can be assumed that the photo is from the ACME era. In fact, UPI and ACME stamps or UPI stamps and ACME original caption tags on a photograph are not uncommon. It appears that, after ACME and UP combined to form UPI, UPI placed their news stamps on many of the old photos.

If the stamp conflicts in date with an original and unaltered lunch bag brown paper tag, the paper tag should be considered more reliable. This is particularly true if the photograph's general appearance is vintage.


Date stamps

The date and time was sometimes stamped on the back of the photo. A photograph can be much older than the date, but can't be newer. A stamped date of, for example, July 7th 1920 means the photograph is at least that old. If there are different date stamps (which will happen, as photographs were occasionally reused for printing or recataloged over the years), the photograph is at least as old as the earliest stamp.

A vintage date stamp on a photograph is highly desirable as it is strong evidence that it is old.


Some press photos have paper tags, often called paper captions or bio sheets. The tags are usually affixed to the back, but can be found on the front. These tags are helpful as they can help identify and date the photograph. They contain a variety of information including the maker of the photo, the date and a detailed description of the image. Many press photos have both a paper tag and a stamp.

The original old tags on news service photos and many other old press photos usually are lunch bag brown paper, having turned that color with age. The older, the darker and more brittle. The text was typed or teletyped. Teletyping looks much like typing but has a slightly different font. In either case, the printing is usually black, but also can be dark blue or purple. The tags were flimsy and easily removed and it is common to see the brown paper remnants from where the tag was glued. In more modern times, tags are typically made of white paper, but can be found in yellow and other colors. A few tags from as early as the 1950s can be the modern bright yellow, though companion stamps from ACME or other news services will confirm that the photo is old.

As the paper tags can easily be removed, and sometimes placed on other photographs, the tag cannot be considered totally reliable. However, for vintage news service photos (UP, AP, etc) if the tag appears to be original (typed or teletyped on brown paper) and unaltered, the photograph's appearance and any stamping is consistent with the period, the paper caption can be considered an exact dating (+ or - a few days) of the photograph. For any press photo, a brown paper tag is evidence of old age.

If there are the brown paper remnants still stuck to the back of a news service photograph, this is evidence the photo is old. main

(c) david rudd cycleback, all rights reserved