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Photograph Identification Guide
by David Rudd Cycleback

Chapter 22 : press and publishing photos: WIREPHOTOS

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Wirephotos, sometimes called telephotos, were made by major news services, also known as wire services, like Associated Press, ACME Newspictures and United Press. Despite common misuse of the term, a wirephoto is only the photograph created by the wirephoto process/machine. If the Associated Press put an original photograph in its wirephoto machine and sent a copy via wire to the San Francisco Chronicle, only the Chronicle's received copy is a wirephoto. The AP's original is not a wirephoto.

Some wirephotos were re-sent, which means that both the source and the received photos can be wirephotos. For example, AP's New York office may have received a wirephoto from its Los Angeles office, then forwarded that image via wirephoto to San Francisco. This can make things complicated. Luckily, as the following described qualities show, wirephotos are easily identified and dated.

The original photograph will be more desirable than the wirephoto copy. Originality is itself a prized quality and the original will have better image clarity. However, wirephotos are popularly collected and examples of significant events can be valuable.

Wirephotos often, but don't always, have the news service's stamp on back. They sometimes have paper tags.

Qualities that identify wirephotos

** Tiny horizontal or vertical lines in the image. The wirephotos were developed in lines, much like a computer print or television image. In fact, the wirephoto machine was the father of the television. In the receiving wirephoto machine, the emitted light was slowly passed over the photographic paper line by line. Under close inspection the wirephoto will often have a line pattern. Sometimes it can be seen up close with the naked eye. Sometimes a magnifying glass is needed. It often appears as jaggedness to a person or car's edge in the image. If there was an interruption in the telephone line during transmission, there sometimes is an obvious 'break' line, squiggles or similar marks in the image. The line pattern is the ultimate way to identify wirephotos.

** A photograph of the caption, rather than the physical caption. During the making of many wirephotos, they would place the paper caption strip at the bottom of the source photograph, and that would be part of the scanned image sent through the telephone wires. The resulting wirephoto will have the caption as part of the photographic image. If you run your fingers across the caption you won't feel it.
Wirephotos that have the caption in the front image are almost always vintage to the date given to the caption ('AP Wirepoto, 12-1-1962: John F. Kennedy visits with…"). This means it's easy to date most wirephotos.

** Oversized, irregular borders. If you've ever put a document in a Xerox machine or computer scanner you know that if the document is smaller than the scanning bed you will end up with a Xerox or scan showing the document surrounded by a background. If you are making a digital image for an auction, you will often crop out the background clutter. This is often the case with wirephotos. The wirephoto machine's bed was often bigger than the source photo, and the resulting wirephoto can have a 'picture within a picture' effect or white borders with irregular dimensions (e.g., one edge much wider than the others). Some wirephotos have normal borders.

** Lesser quality than the source. Wirephotos often have nice and presentable images, but many wirephotos have faded or muddy images. At first glance, they will usually appear less crisp and rich than an original image. This in part explains why the original photo is more desirable than the wirephoto made from it. If a vintage ACME or AP photo has a crystal clear image, it is an original photograph. If the photo has a less clear image, with blemishes and little squiggles or marks and less image detail, it probably is a wirephoto.

Laserphotos, which were the replacement to wirephotos, existed from the 1970s-90s. They have the same general appearance as wirephotos. They will ordinarily have in-the-image captions that state they are laserphotos, along with the irregular white borders.

Be Warned
Few buyers and sellers correctly use the term 'wirephoto.' They usually use the term to describe all sorts of photos, including true wirephotos, original photos, newspaper photos and other press photos. I have seen sellers offer '1910s wirephotos.' The problem being that the wirephoto process wasn't invented until the 1920s.

This means that when an online seller is offering a '1955 Mickey Mantle original wirephoto,' you can't always be sure what is being offered. Does the seller mean it's a wirephoto? Does the seller mean by 'original' it was the original photo the wirephoto was made from (and of better image quality and desirability)? It can be a guessing game for the potential bidder.

1960s UPI and AP wirephotos with the irregular border dimensions and pictures-only of the caption

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