Before you Buy... Feeling Matters!
Nov/Dec 2018 edition
Issue #2 AutoMobilia Resource Magazine
If you are considering collecting automobile photography....a little knowledge as to how to differentiate between a modern and a vintage photograph will go a long way. The first level of defense against over-spending is understanding the language. I have seen vintage photographs called period, historical, and original, while many times the seller has no real idea of the age or origin of the image.
Even galleries and museums have a hard time accurately describing what the term “vintage” means when applied to photography. I have read long dissertations on the subject by very knowledgeable people that come to the conclusion that if a photograph is printed by the photographer on or about the time that is was taken, then it is vintage. The word “about” is the problem. To cover the “about” I have read that the photograph needed to be printed within 10% of the ensuing years. In other words, if the scene depicted in the photograph happened 100 years ago, then the photograph needed to be printed at least 90 years ago to be called vintage. But there is no hard, fast rule, it is buyer beware.
If you are buying in person, just turn over the photo and examine the back, and if you’re in luck, there is a date as to when it was used in print. If it was not used in a magazine or newspaper, then is there a description of the event depicted? Is there a photographer’s stamp on it? If so, when was this photographer active, where did he or she photograph, and if they are not still active, where are the negatives now? It may be time to retreat to Google on your phone to answer these questions if the seller does not know or you may have to rely on your own good judgement.
If the back of the photograph is blank, then you can still do a little sleuthing. If the photograph is of an event that happened before the early 1950s, then you should be able to tell because in the early fifties paper manufacturers started adding a bleach to paper. So with a ‘black light’ flashlight you will be able to tell if the photograph was made on paper made before the 1950s. Lay a white business card on the back of the photograph, the card should glow while the vintage photograph will not. However, if the photograph originally was not washed properly, and the back is stained a dark tan or brown that might negate this test.
Finally, Resin Coated photo paper normally called RC paper came into prominence around 1970. It is the slippery feeling paper that is hard to write on the back of. It was used in news rooms and other places that required photos to dry fast and it lays flat. With this information you can easily date photographs on RC paper by coordinating the actual image with the 1970 date.
Up until the digital revolution, there were still many images being printed on photo paper that would test as 1950s or later paper (it would glow when tested). That printing process has now become an expensive process in comparison to digital, so if someone were to fake an old photo, the reproduction would likely be a digital copy.
The final test is up to you, look at the front of the photograph and mentally date it, then turn to the back and look for anything that might help date the image. Ultimately you will learn to just feel a photograph and tell a lot about its origins.
To read more great columns like this one from automotive photography expert Dale LaFollette...
Vintage Auto Photography
Dale LaFollette, the owner of Vintage Motorphoto, specializes in rare and collectable original racing photographs. Explore his knowledge in this column.