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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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World Series Champions on Two Continents: the 1943 Yankees

When I first saw the photograph, I was struck by what was visible in the image. The stadium’s grandstands appeared to be a modern concrete facility with an unorthodox seating configuration. The absence of a true baseball park layout that also lacked traditional dugouts and caused me to take a closer look. In viewing the image (along with the corresponding caption and clipping) what I discovered quite surprisingly, was that the photo provided a rare glimpse of a rather noteworthy service team baseball game that was the culmination of one man’s monumental organizational efforts.

There have been countless pioneers in the game of baseball throughout its existence though most are relatively unknown in American culture. Apart from cultural icons who forged through some of the most arduous and challenging of circumstances like Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey, Americans (who are not ardent fans of the game) might offer stone-faced empty stares if asked to name another pioneer of the game. Curt Flood might come to mind for those who understand the business side of baseball regarding the Reserve Clause and Free Agency. Perhaps one might mention Bill Veeck and his trend-bucking game-promotion wizardry throughout his tenure as an executive and team owner (and who was threatening to break the color barrier by buying the ailing Phillies and field an entire roster of former Negro League players)?

One of the earliest World War II ground offensives that the United States armed forces participated in was launched in early November of 1942 with an amphibious assault onto the shores of Northern Africa with the goal of unseating the entrenched Axis troops that had occupied the region since the previous year. The invasion was a large-scale operation that included Allied naval and ground forces from Great Britain (including Australia and Canada), Free France, the Netherlands and the United States.  Following the initial push of Operation Torch (November 8-16), the Axis powers put up a strong and costly defense that finally succumbed to the Allies in the Spring of 1943. Included among the American troops that were killed (totaling 526) during the campaign, baseball lost four of its own; Simeon A. “Alex” BoxJoe C. Byrd, Jr.Andrew D. Curlee, Jr. and John C. Eggleton.  Baseball saw one of its minor leaguers, Lt. Bobby Byrne Jr., son of former major leaguer (Cardinals, Pirates, Phillies and White Sox) Bobby Byrne, Sr., downed multiple German Messerschmitt fighters as he provided air cover for allied bombers over North Africa. Wounded during the engagements, the younger Bryne was later conferred the Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Cross medals. Lt. Byrne attained “Ace” status as a U.S. Army Air Forces fighter pilot during WWII and was credited for downing six enemy aircraft.

Henry “Zeke” Bonura during his time with the White Sox, in either 1934 or ’35.

I first learned about baseball pioneer, Henry John “Zeke” Bonura in a piece authored by Gary Bedingfield that was published in the fantastic book, When Baseball Went to War (edited by Todd Anton and Bill Nowlin) detailing the establishment of a baseball league in North Africa following the Allied victory over the vanquished Germans, Italians and Vichy French in May of 1943. Maintaining troops’ fitness and agility while distracting them from the monotonicity of being an occupying force. Bonura was granted permission to establish fields of play along with organizing more than 1,000 players into six leagues that featured 150 GI teams.

Aside from his organizational skills, the former major league (White Sox, Senators, Giants and Cubs) first baseman (1932-1940) was adept at pressing the flesh from afar, getting the word back to his contacts in in the States regarding the need for equipment and uniforms. With vital resources pouring into supplying and equipping the armed forces for fighting, baseball (and other sporting equipment) was non-essential and was unsupported by tax-payers or war bond-purchasers’ funds.

In his piece, Henry “Zeke” Bonura His Contributions To Wartime Baseball, S. Derby Gislair spotlighted Bonura’s abilities to do what it takes to achieve his goal of bringing the game to the region, “By his resourcefulness, enthusiasm and leadership,” Gislair wrote, “(Bonura) was able to overcome many shortages in needed assistance and construction materials, and he established twenty baseball fields in the area through the use of volunteer assistants and salvaged materials.” The need for equipment was ever-present and “Zeke” tapped on all of his contacts for assistance. “I hear from him and others now in the service, frequently,” stated (in June of 1943) Henry Morrow of the makers of the Louisville Slugger bats, Hillerich & Bradsby (H&B). “Not long ago, I received a letter from Zeke, who is in North Africa. He wanted six bats in his model. The weight limit of packages sent overseas is five pounds. So, I appealed to the Red Cross, and the package of six bats – weighing about 15 pounds – is on the way to Africa,” Morrow concluded. Bonura wrote to his H&B contact, “I am somewhere between the French and the Arabs.”

As the 1943 season progressed throughout the summer of ‘43, Bonura received a visit from the Clown Prince of Baseball, major league pitcher-turned-comedic-entertainer Al Schact. Schact spent his time entertaining troops in North Africa (presumably as he had done around the professional game leading up to WWII at baseball games) and met with Zeke while gaining a better understanding of the need for recreation equipment for the troops. Seizing on the opportunity to help, Schact returned to the states with a motivation to lend a hand having brought back to the states, a captured Nazi helmet from North Africa, which was sold to a Wall Street firm during an auction (Branch Rickey served as the auctioneer), for $150,000 for the bat and ball fund.

Zeke Bonura’s skills of promotion were brought to bear as he promoted the (then) upcoming North African World Series non-stop, using his notoriety to obtain coverage for the games on the Armed Forces Radio Network.

The September, 1943 playoffs narrowed the expansive field to two finalists – the Casablanca Yankees and the Algiers Streetwalkers – met in what became known as the North African World Series. GIs throughout the Mediterranean region were able to tune in via the Armed Forces Radio Network to listen to the play-by-play broadcast of each game.

A view of the stands in Eugene Stadium, Algiers, during the first game of the North African World Series. The U.S. Army M.P.s played the “Yankees” and came our very much second best to the tune of 9-0.”
“Baseball Follows the Yanks – Even in North Africa the spirit of the World Series blooms. A game between U.S. Military Police and a service team of “Yankees.”

Playing before stands filled with 4,000 GIs, French and British troops along with local Algerians, the Casablanca Yankees, a team of Army combat medics took the field against the Streetwalkers’ roster that consisted of U.S. Army military policemen (MPs). Taking the mound for the Yankees, former Cleveland Indians southpaw prospect Sergeant Vernon Kohler pitched a 9-0 shutout in the first game. First baseman (and manager), Lieutenant Walt Singer, former left end for the 1935-36 New York Football Giants, provided punch at the plate as he was the Yankees’ most powerful hitter. Singer collected five total hits which included a homerun (in a three-run, bottom of the ninth inning) which proved to be the knockout punch against the Streetwalkers in the deciding 7-6, game-two victory in the best of three series. In the absence of a trophy or championship rings, the victorious Casablanca Yankees were, instead each presented with baseballs signed by the commanding general, Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The North African baseball leagues would continue under the leadership and guidance of Bonura into 1944 despite the exodus of large numbers of servicemen as the battle to liberate Europe from the tyrannical reign of the Third Riech progressed through Italy, France and on towards Germany. The discovery of this lone image from the first game of that 1943 championship series was quite satisfying, despite the significant restoration work required (due to the wartime photo editor’s markings and extensive aging) to make the photograph presentable, here.

 

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