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          cycleback : guide to press & publishing photograph

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Wirephotos 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 (see chapter 3 for description of wirephoto process). 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 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.

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 significant examples can receive good prices.

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, kind of 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 or microscope is needed.  It often appears as jaggedness to a person or car’s edge.  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.  This line pattern is the ultimate way to identify wirephotos.


 * A photograph of the caption, rather than the actual 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 (as opposed to a physical paper tag glued to the front) are almost always vintage to the date given to the caption (’AP Wirepoto, 12-1-1962: John F. Kennedy visits with…”).


 * 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 an image for an auction, you will often crop out the document.  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 dimentions (e.g., one edge much thicker than the others). 


 * Lesser quality than the source.  Wirephotos often have nice and presentable images, but many wirephotos have faded or muddy images.  At first glance, they often appear a bit off.  Though sometimes close, wirephotos can never have as clear of images as the original source photos.  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.


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



 Laserphotos, which were the replacement to wirephotos, existed from the 1970s-90s.  They will ordinarily have the caption tag as part of the actual image.  The caption tag will specifically state that it is a laserphoto.  They usually have the same ‘picture within a picture’ effect as wirephotos.



Be Warned

 Few collectors, dealers and even auction houses 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 major auction houses 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.


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