IS THAT PHOTOGRAPH OLD?
A Three-part Series on Judging the Age of Photographs
Part I: Introduction and Photographs from the 1800s
By David Rudd
Collecting antique photographs is a popular hobby, and
photography is an integral part of nearly all vintage areas of collecting, including sports, history, politics, autographs, Hollywood and postcards. Sadly, as with all types of memorabilia, there
are and always will be many modern fakes and reprints. This three-part series offers the beginner some quick tips to help determine whether or not a photograph is old.
As in all areas of
collecting, personal experience is important. The more you know and ask, and the more photographs you handle and observe, the better. Many beginners start their experience with old family albums.
If you are considering buying rare and expensive photographs, consider whom you are buying from. There are many knowledgeable and honest dealers and collectors on and offline.
Is It a Photograph?
The first, and perhaps most important, question when looking at a photograph, is determining if it really is a photograph. Many fakes and reprints are lithographs,
computer prints and other mechanical prints.
The phrase to remember here is, 'Dots versus No Dots.' Mechanical prints, or non-photographs, make a photo-realistic image by translating a
photographic image into a minute pattern of dots. These dots cannot be seen with the naked eye, but can be seen with a good magnifying glass or microscope. Around the house examples of this type
of 'dot' printing include the images in magazines, calendars, newspapers and modern trading cards. Check it out yourself.
Real photographs, on the other hand, have no dot pattern (unless,
of course, the image is of a Dalmatian or a kid with freckles). Photographic images are made by subtle chemical reaction. Even under a high power microscope, the tones and details are extremely
subtle. The details are so subtle, it often seems as if you can't get the microscope into focus.
Photographs of the 1800s
Once you get the hang of it, identifying photographs
made in the 1800s is not that hard. The processes and styles used then are out of date, long ago replaced by new technology and fashion.
In the 19th century there were many different
kinds of photographic processes that produced a variety of appearances. For simplicity sake, the focus here is on the 'albumen prints,' which was the dominant form of photography. Well over
ninety percent of all 19th century photographs, especially made after 1860, were albumen prints. These photographs have characteristics that can be identified.
Virtually all albumen prints
are on extremely thin and delicate paper and had to be pasted to cardboard sheets, called 'mounts.' Some can be found mounted in books or albums. Unmounted prints tended to roll tightly together
and cannot be straightened out without causing damage. The mounts come in a variety of colors, styles and sizes and usually have the photographer's stamp on the front and/or back.
albumen print photographs have a glossy, often too glossy, surface. The image color was usually purplish brown but has aged and today consists of browns and yellows, sometimes with subtle purples
or reds. The image is often described as sepia-colored or warm. This is unlike the cool black and white tones that dominated the 20th century. The shadows of the albumen print are rarely pure
black, and the whites are rarely pure white.
Nearly all albumen prints exhibit some aging. This can include general or localized yellowing, especially noticeable in the white areas. Fading
of detail is often noticeable. Small age spots, known as foxing, often exist. Under the microscope, the viewer should be able to see the fibers of the paper. Many later processes added a
protective layer of gelatin that hides the fibers from view.
Albumen prints can range from 1" X 1" to more then 20" X 20," though example larger than 7" X 10"
Albumen prints have not made commercially for nearing one hundred years, though a few hobbyists and artists dabble in modernized forms. If a photograph has the above
characteristics, it is most probably old.
David Rudd is Director of Art & Collectable Examination at Cycleback http://www.cycleback.com
in Seattle and is author of the books 'Authentication and Forgery Detection of Prints and Antique Photographs' and 'Guide to Identifying Early Photographs: a Pocket Manual.' He is a member of the
International Directory of Photography Historians, Association of Art Historians and the International Association
of Paper Historians.