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Photography Class: It’s What’s on the Back (of Vintage News Photos) that Counts

In the previous two installments of our vintage photograph collecting series, we discussed some basic concepts and outlined considerations for collectors who are new to old photographs (see: Photography Class: Vintage Photograph Collecting Tips). We also touched upon the need for standardizing and applying terminology consistently in this genre, especially surrounding old transmitted photographs that were used by printed publications such as newspapers (see: Photography Class: On the Wire). Though the article wasn’t specifically written in conjunction with this developing series, our article, A Negative Original: Vintage Photo Fraud discusses both the fraudulent side of this collecting genre and a few specific areas to pay attention to when considering a vintage photograph for purchase.

This installment in the series is a continuation of our discussion surrounding photos that were previously employed within the printed media process and provides an introduction into back-marked or back-stamped images.

This ACME Newspictures stamp was applied in 1941 and, as is quite common, has the accompanying N.E.A. stamp with the reference department number.

In our article regarding wire transmitted photographs, we touched upon some of the information that accompanies these photographs. In (almost) all situations with this particular type of photograph, the image will be marked on the reverse with stamps to indicate the source agency, date that the image was captured, date that the image was published and even the publications archival information. Much of this same information will also accompany press or news photos. The following list is a fairly complete collection of the most common marks found on Twentieth Century news photographs:

  • ACME, ACME Newspictures, ACME Photos: 1923 to 1952. Early on known as United Newspictures. Purchased by United Press in the 1950s.
  • Associated Press Photos (AP). 1926-93. AP wirephotos existed 1935-1970s. AP Laserphotos 1970s-90s.
  • Bain News Service, 1898-1930s. Founded by early baseball photographer George Grantham Bain, this was a pioneer news services.
  • Central Press Association of Cleveland was in service for many years and started in the first part of the 20th Century. Back stamps often include an accompanying date.
  • Culver Pictures Inc, of New York City, was formed in the early 1900s and exists today. This means the Culver stamp can appear on both an early and a modern photo. Culver acquired a significant portion of the Bain News Service archives adding their stamp to older Bain images.
  • Harris and Ewing: 1905-45 was a Washington D.C. photo service; subjects are predominantly sports and politicians.
  • International News: 1909-1957. Many of this major news service’s images bear the stamp, International News.  Back markings can be easily dated:
    • International News Service – 1909-15
    • International Film Service – 1915-20
    • International – 1915-1922
    • International Newsreel  – 1922-28
    • International News Photo – 1928-57
  • Keystone View Company, New York. Existed in the early 1900s.
  • N.E.A.: 1923-52. Synonymous with ACME Newspictures. An ACME photo will often also have an N.E.A. stamp.
  • Pacific and Atlantic Photos: 1921-31
  • Underwood & Underwood, aka Underwood: 1910s-30s
  • United Newpictures : 1923-25
  • United Press (UP). United Press issued news photos from the late 19th century through the 1958 when it merged with International News Service becoming United Press International (UPI).
  • United Press Association (UPA). A synonym for United Press, this  stamp was only used only during the 1950s.
  • Universal Press International (UPI), 1958 – Today. UPI made originals and modern photos of modern subjects. However, UPI also made ‘printed later’ photos of 1910s-30s subjects, noted as modern by the UPI stamp on back. These reprints can have high quality images, as UPI had a huge archive of new and old negatives. These UPI reprints of folks like Ty Cobb and Walter Johnson in their playing days have fooled many collectors, who don’t realize UPI is a modern company.
  • World Wide Photos, 1919 to Present.

SourceTips for Identifying Authentic Vintage News Photos

 

Aside from the glue and paper reside on the back of this Ferris Fain image, St. Louis photographer George Dorrill’s stamp is accompanied by markings from The Sporting News and their label that was applied at the time of deaccessioning.

Aside from the news-source stamps adorning former press photographs, collectors might also observe the presence of markings from the photographers who captured and printed the images. As these photos are deaccessioned from print media archives, they are often purchased in bulk re-sellers who scan and inventory each piece for reselling to the collector market.  As part of the process, re-sellers apply their own stamps, tags or both to the image backs making for quite an array of information for collectors to discern.

An early 20th Century press photo created by Burke and Atwell – a partnership of two Chicago area press photographers. This photographs shows the U.S. Army Baseball Club from the Chicago, Illinois Army Recruiting District command.

Photos that cover military subjects or were captured in or near sensitive combat areas could contain information that, if an image was to fall into the wrong hands, could have proven to be detrimental to operations or personnel. Depending upon the unit size, function or location, a layer of security control was established to provide oversight and approval of photographs prior to releasing to the media. This element separates vintage baseball photographs (from the armed forces) from those documenting the professional game with applied markings from unit or branch public relations or public affairs offices or even war department censor approval markings.

In many cases, vintage photographs will bear the markings of the photographer. The most well-known of the early photographers and perhaps the creators of the most collectible images were working in the early years of the Twentieth Century. Charles Conlan, George Grantham Bain and George Burke captured the most iconic photographs of baseball’s early stars. Photos bearing their markings are the most sought after and garner significantly higher values on the collector market. George Brace, the aforementioned Burke’s younger business partner, continued to reprint images from Burke’s archive (Burke passed in 1951, leaving his archive with his young apprentice) up until his death in the late 1980s. Most original prints from these four photographers were back-marked – Conlon’s photos with considerable inconsistency.

One aspect of collecting retired press photographs to be aware of is that many of the prints will have alterations applied directly to the image-surface by an editorial staff illustrator. In an era that predates digital photo editing (with applications such as Adobe PhotoShop), corrections were made by hand to ensure that the half-toning  (part of the preparation in the newspaper printing process) will translate the focus and details of the photograph will stand out on the newsprint. Enhancing details or spotlighting an individual is done by applying varying colors of paint (with artist’s brushes) providing definition to edges or creating masking around a person.  Collectors should be aware that these nuances might not be distinguishable on-screen in seller’s snapshots of the vintage photograph.

Although collecting retired and deaccessioned vintage press and news photographs has experienced a rise in popularity among hobbyists bring more attention and demand (which has impacted valuations), this area is still one of the more affordable avenues for building a baseball image archive. Depending upon the vintage photograph’s subject (the caliber of player, the setting, pose, etc.), collector-demand can drive the value into the hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars. Vintage photographs of baseball players (including those who were then or became legends) in their military service uniforms or their military baseball flannels are typically more affordable, however their availability is considerably limited.

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See Also:

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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