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          cycleback : guide to press & publishing photograph

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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 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. 



Microscopic view of a modern half-tone showing the dot pattern.  This fine dot pattern allowed printed pictures to look realistic.


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 adverting 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 big 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 would 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 or 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 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 stamps will receive a higher price at auction or sale than others.  The collector will find press photos with stamps from stamps from two or more sources, 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.




ACME stamp on a 1940s photo





Stamp on the back of a 1931 Vogue magazine photo



 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 AP photograph


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 since the 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 actual photographs over the telephone sounds a tad incredible.  The invention of the wirephoto process eventually led to overnight photograph distribution.

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.  A special 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. 

The result was that that the receiving newspaper would have 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.  For example, 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 was 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. 

 Though press photos were still distributed the old fashioned way, and a local newspaper would still hire its own photographers for local stories, the wirephoto system was the dominant form of photo distribution from 1935 until the mid 1970s.



Beyond wirephotos: laserphotos, digital,

computer to computer


 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.  Now, full color images were transmitted at

the speed of about 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’ 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 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 your for their use.  Corbis owns many of the images, but also represents thousands of photographers and organizations (magazines, newspapers, etc).  For a particular photo, part of your payment will got 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.


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