Photograph Identification Guide
by David Rudd Cycleback


boxer Ezzard Charles: 1950s handpainted gelatin silver print on board.

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This chapter is a quick overview to the rest of the book.

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Photographic process: The way in which a photographic image is made. A particular process is distinguished by its unique use of chemicals, substances and methods.

Photographic print: The image created by the photographic process. A particular print is made by a particular process. For example, the albumen print is created by the albumen process, while the gelatin-silver process creates the gelatin-silver print.

Photographic style or type: The combination of the photographic print and the manner in which it is displayed. The cabinet card is a style of photograph which is comprised of a photographic print pasted to a larger cardboard mount measuring about 4-1/2" X 6-1/2". The panorama is a different style, with a long photographic print usually giving a sweeping view of a town, stadium or line of people.

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Photography is the process of creating an image on a chemically sensitized surface by interaction with light. The resulting image is usually called a photographic print.

Over history there have been many different photographic processes. Some processes were used long ago, some recently, some had a long duration, some short, some processes were widely used, while others were obscure. Each process produces a unique photographic print that can be identified. Qualities such as color, surface texture and type of aging help us distinguish one type of print from another. For example, the cyanotype has a bright blue image on matte paper, while the cibachrome has a true color image on ultra glossy paper. The image can also be examined under a microscope in order to uncover tiny clues.

A particular process and its print share the same name. The gum bichromate print was produced by the gum bichromate process, the platinotype process produced the platinotype print.



Different photographic processes produce prints with different image colors.


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Photographs come in various styles and types. The style or type is determined by many things, including size, shape, parts and use. For example, a real photo postcard (a postcard with a photographic image on the back) is a style obviously distinct from a 20 by 20 inches photo that is matted, framed and hung from the wall.
As with processes and prints, each style of photograph has its own history, usually influenced by a combination of fashion, necessity and technology.

Many prints and styles could be interchanged. For example the carte de visite (a style where a small photographic print was pasted to a card) usually used the albumen print, but it sometimes used different types of prints.

Many early photographs weren't made of paper, but glass and metal. Well known metal and glass photographs include the 1800s Daguerreotype (image on silver coated copper), ambrotype (image on glass), tintype (image on iron resembling tin) and glass negative (negative image on glass). These are popular with collectors and, due to their non-paper material, easy to identify.

Identifying and dating photographs

Sports photographs are identified and dated by looking at all the qualities of the photograph. This includes the image subject (baseball player, track runner, Green Bay Packer football team), photographic style, photographic process and other indications of age.

Photographic processes and styles have distinct histories that help us to date a photograph. For example, almost all albumen prints are from the 1800s while the Polaroid was invented in 1963. The American real photo postcard was introduced in 1901, while the cabinet card was used in the 1800s and early 1900s. Knowledge of processes and styles is essential to identify and dating photographs.

If the subject of the photograph is from the 1880s, the style is from the 1880s and the photographic process is the kind used in the 1880s, it would appear the photograph is from the 1880s.

Particularly at sale or auction, the photograph will already be labeled and you will judge whether or not the label is accurate. If the seller says the baseball photo is from the 1860s, you look at the player's uniform and equipment and style of cabinet to determine if the sport and date is accurate. If the seller is a well known and respected photograph dealer, her opinion may hold great weight. You may feel that the seller is more of an expert on the particular sport than you. If the eBay seller has horrible feedback and no history of selling photographs, you will be skeptical of his word.

Forgeries and reprints are identified because qualities of the photograph are in major conflict with each other. If the image is of Babe Ruth in the 1920s but the paper is modern, the photo is a reprint.

Many fakes are genuine photographs that are significantly misidentified. Many 'baseball tintypes' are genuine 1800s tintypes but do not picture a baseball player. It may picture an 1870s fireman, firemen of the time having similar uniforms as baseball players. The seller with a case of wishful thinking may call a farmer's heavy work glove a baseball glove.

While an eBay photo may be an original cabinet card of a boxer, the seller may have misdated it. Considering an 1860s cabinet card is rarer than a 1910s cabinet card, the misdating may effect value.

Many photographs have stamps, tags and stickers that help in identification. These can identify the photographer, issuer (magazine, sports team, other) and help give a date. If the authentic stamp is from a photo agency that went out of business in 1940, that would show that the photograph was made in 1940 or earlier. If the back of a Jim Thorpe 8x10 photo has 1990s Kodak photo paper printing, the photo is identified as a modern reprint.

As described in a later chapter, a black light is an easy to use tool to identify many reprints and forgeries, as it identifies modern photo paper. main

(c) david rudd cycleback, all rights reserved