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Photography Class: On the Wire

The Chevrons and Diamonds vintage and antique photo archive has grown over the past decade. While in our estimation, it is far from complete and there are always “new” prints and transparencies to add that further enhance the collection while providing incredible visual glimpses into the military game, its people and the locations.  Despite the size and scope of the collection, it seems that we can frequently source a new image that adds previously unseen perspectives.

Regardless of the sphere of collecting around which a given collector orbits, one of the most common challenges to understand lies within the realm of terminology. Photography collecting has its own set of terms that folks apply as they attempt to classify images causing a considerable confusion. Even with those regarded as experts, terminology can and often does encroach upon the realm of perspective rather than to classify unique, yet related classifications. Many colleagues who have only recently become interested in the area of vintage photography collecting may interchange terminology that sound similar but truly have different and specific meanings and usage.

Aside from the faintly discernible wire transmission imperfections in this 1942 AP Wirephoto, a photo editor was heavy-handed with his art brush in creating a suitable base image for subsequent half-toning as the image of these four Norfolk Naval Training Station team members listen to pitcher Bob Feller provides a lesson (left to right: Sam Chapman, Feller, Fred Hutchinson and Ace Parker).

Perhaps the majority of confusion with collecting vintage baseball photography lies within the realm of photographs that were created and used within the printed periodical arena. As press technology advanced in the first part of the Twentieth Century, the shift from illustrations (by way of woodcuts and other printing techniques) to photographs was a rapid transition. The preeminent sports photographers in this period were George Grantham Bain, George Burke and Charles Conlon. Bain’s career began with the United Press but he established his own business (Bain News Service) that sold his photos to all media outlets in the New York area.  Chicago’s George Burke also established himself both as a syndicated photographer and by selling his baseball image reprints to baseball fans seeking images of their favorite players. Conlon is perhaps the most well-known baseball photographer of these early years. Working as an editor for the Sporting News, he was an amateur photog who packed his equipment to the ballparks, capturing some of the most iconic images in the game’s history. Newspaper editors took note of the images being captured by Conlon, Bain and Burke and began to add photographers to their news desk staff.

The back of this 1945 press photo (Joe Gordon arguing with umpire Vinnie Smith) from the Newspaper Enterprise Association (NEA) shows the typical arrangement of markings and the affixed paper caption.

The demand for baseball photographs across the breadth of the United States and Canada for newspaper publication was rapid and increasing. Americans in cities and towns far removed from the majors and minor leagues were soon seeing photos in their sports sections of Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson, Warren Johnson, Tris Speaker and Cy Young and others though due to the distances away from those games, the depictions could be as old as a week following the games. These photographs, known to collectors as Press Photos (or News Photos) were darkroom-printed enlargements that were marked and distributed through manual means (U.S. Mail, air parcel or hand-carried) to hundreds of newspaper destinations.

Demand for near-real-time images created necessity which in turn led to inventiveness. Though facsimile technology had been advancing since the early-mid-1840s when Alexander Bain (no relation to the aforementioned George) developed the first facsimile machine, it took more than 70 years before the first image was transmitted using the technology.  In 1921, Western Union transmitted its first halftone photograph across the telephone and telegraph lines followed by AT&T in 1924. RCA transmitted a photograph (wirelessly) over the air (known as a Radiophoto) in 1926.

A close-up of the Norfolk Naval Training Station “N” on Fred Hutchinson’s jersey shows the jagged lines in this 1942 AP Wirephoto.

In the present-day digital age of in-home wireless networks, “smart” phones and digital cameras, it is almost inconceivable that the instant gratification of sharing a photograph was a multi-step process a little more than two decades ago. Processing an image captured on film could be done in an hour followed by scanning (digitizing) the print or negative to create an electronic file that could then be disseminated required significant effort and, by present standards, time. However, On January 1, 1935 when the Associated Press successfully transmitted an aerial photograph of an airplane crash site in upstate New York, a standard for rapid news photography dissemination was established along with the creation of the trademarked AP Wirephoto (for a detailed explanation of the technology, watch the 1937 film, Wire Photo Technology: “Spot News”, below).


Wire Photo Technology: “Spot News” 1937 GM

For collectors of vintage sports photographs, transmitted photos are considerably less desirable (and in turn, garner a lower financial investment to acquire) than an original type-1 press photo due to a number of reasons.

  1. Abundant copies. With the advent of wire technology, copies of a transmitted photo are so numerous by comparison to the numbers of press photo copies.
  2. Low image resolution and reduced quality. The wire technology used to transmit the data poses a considerable reduction to the image clarity giving the photographs a somewhat foggy appearance.
  3. Muddy appearance. Aside from a loss of image clarity from the original photograph during the scanning and transmission, wire photos suffer from a reduction of contrast. A side-by-side comparison (original and transmitted photos) reveal the significant difference between the two with the wire image having an abundance of gray tones rather than distinct whites and blacks.

Since the Associated Press trademarked their transmitted photos as AP Wirephoto, their competitors followed suit. The ACME Newspictures (also known as ACME News Photos) which operated from 1923 to 1952, comparable product, ACME Telephoto. The United Press Associations (more widely known as the United Press) which operated from 1907 to 2000, had a similarly named product, United Press Telephoto. Though each of the three organizations used proprietary technology, the resulting photos transmitted are virtually indistinguishable to the naked eye.

AP Wirephoto, ACME Telephoto and UP Telephotos are usually back-marked with their trademarks along with captions, source, dates and other back markings common with newspaper-used photos. Earlier images (1940s or earlier) more commonly have paper captions affixed to the backs similar to press photos. The later years, these photos will have captions printed directly onto the margin of the photograph face.

Wirephotos and Telephotos can be good additions to a photo collection especially in the absence of locating an original or press photo when the subject matter is of particular interest.

See also: Photography Class: Vintage Photograph Collecting Tips

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