Wire photos

Wire photos, or Wirephotos are one of the common types of vintage archive photographs that emerge occasionally in militaria market and are often mistakenly considered to be low-quality press-photos. Wire photos could be easily identified as such judging from the following criteria: relatively large format – slightly less than standard A4 size, 8x10 inch approximately; glossy surface; poor contrast; defocused blurry image; sepia or brown tone color; thin paper sometimes; credit line or stamp of a photo agency on obverse or reverse. But the most common characteristic of wire photos is an extended caption along one of its borders that is integrated into an image itself. Vast majority of wire photos also bear traces of editing in ink and retouch. Relatively poor quality of such photos and washed out images are at the bottom of reluctance most collectors display when dealing with that kind of memorabilia. Moreover wire photos are even regarded sometimes as crude fakes or period reproductions at the best.

Willing to avoid being presumptuous by declaring that all the wire photos are undoubtedly authentic it’s worth mentioning here that such conclusions might be made only upon thorough rigorous study of an item. Nevertheless experience teaches that overwhelming majority of photos in question could be safely attributed as original items if historical period of their printing serves as a criterion of their authenticity.

So what are the wire photos and why catching pictures are often darkened by lack of quality?

Emerging of wire photos 

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A wire photo is actually a photographic image that was acquired not directly from a glass or whatsoever negative but was printed out from an image transmitted to a news or photo agency by its press photographer or reporter via telegraph or telephone wires, and later via satellite. Such a process that sank into oblivion with an invention of Internet was almost similar to sending and receiving documents by fax as roughly speaking a photo was scanned at one location, transmitted over the wire, and finally received at a point of destination. Thus those yellowed blurry photos deserve anything but benign neglect for they had been printed in distant era when telecommunication was truly a cutting-edge technology and hitherto unseen transmission of images saved not only money but time, the latter being much more important for journalism.

Revealed opportunities of attractive news presentation by the use of wire photos were appreciated in their true value by an American news agency Associated Press (AP). Such a  sagacity gave AP a major advantage over other American news agencies. AP established its Wirephoto Network in 1935 that was in charge of permanent transmission of black and white photographs on the day they were taken via expensive leased telephone lines. The very first AP wire photo depicted the crash of an airplane in New York’s Adirondack Mountains. AP Wirephoto was a registered trademark of Associated Press wire photos between 1963 and 2004.

Several others news media companies estimated importance of telephotography at its true worth and soon established their own wire services inventing different trademark names such as Cablephoto, Radiophoto, Telephoto, Laserphoto, Laserphoto II, etc.

Origins of wire photos can be traced back to 1921 when Western Union transmitted the very first halftone photograph. It was in 1924 that “American Telephone and Telegraph” (AT&T Corporation) picked up the baton, and since 1926 telephotography was mastered by RCA that started sending its own Radiophotos.

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At the outset of telephotography transmission of photos was too slow and quality of an image at the destination point left much to be desired. The problem was solved in 1929 by Vladimir Zworykin, a Russian-American inventor and prominent engineer who managed to cut drastically transmission time and improve distinctly quality of prints. Henceforth it took one minute approximately to transmit a photograph. Yet wirephoto machines of the 30s were bulky, expensive and required a dedicated telephone line. Standard phone lines were adapted for transmission in the mid 30s. Portable copiers, transmitters and receivers that needed only a standard long distance phone line were soon put into service thus marking a new era of photojournalism.

The very process of telephotography consisted of the following steps. At first press photographer took a picture, made an original print from a negative, prepared brief description on a typewriter and glued that caption to the border of an original photo. Thereupon ready-made photograph was inserted into a special machine at the sending station and transmitted via phone line to an editorial office. At the destination point photo paper was then exposed with the transmitted image and the above-mentioned caption became an integral part of the final image. Incidentally that was one of the fundamental differences between wire photo and press photo as the latter had a copy of typed caption glued to a reverse of a print. Finally wirephoto was used according to its intended purpose, i.e. sold to the parties concerned that had signed appropriate contracts with a news agency.

Sometimes wire photos had authentic press clippings glued to their backsides, and that clearly signified that a print was published in a particular issue of a newspaper. Such items are of the greatest value among the whole range of wire photos available in present-day market. 

In most cases reverses of wirephotos bear various marks and notes made in ink or pencil as well as different stamps. Some prints still have traces of editing in ink, paint and retouch.

After being published wire photos were enumerated and shelved. In the long run thousands of such items would lose their value and would be bought for a song by adventurous dealers for further resale to collectors.


Authenticity and value of wire photos 

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One of the questions asked the most with regard to wire photos is whether they are authentic collectible items worthy of being added to a collection and taking their place among generally recognized traditional photographic prints?

Unambiguous advice can hardly be given as pros and cons of the issue could be discussed zealously but the final decision should be made by a particular collector.

On the one hand, wire photo is different from a common photograph and strictly speaking is not an original print if a process of development from a negative and printing of one or several photographs within short stretch of time serve as a criterion of “originality”. In point of fact wire photo is an authentic 2nd generation copy or even sometimes copy of another copy or a collage. As already mentioned above that is the main reason of wirephotos’ imperfection, i.e. loss of sharpness and halftones as well as discoloration in comparison with the original image. Another crucial factor that should not be disregarded is the obvious inferiority of semicentennial hardware. Also, as in the case of press photo, particular wire photo may have been sold, i.e. transmitted to several of subscribing agencies, thus creating dozens of identical prints from a single original. As a result wire photos are obviously less rare than traditional photographs.

On the other hand, several aspects of wire photos make them uniquely desirable to collectors and historians. Firstly, decades-old negative and original photo print may have been lost or discarded as useless thus making wirephoto the only remaining unique artifact with a value equal to a traditional photograph depicting the same event. Long removed from commercial use, wire photos went down in history and won’t be reproduced ever, so in such contingency quantity of these items still available in the market is getting less and less. Last but not least these artifacts that represent an important era in the history of news media depict interesting moments and sometimes similar high-quality amateur photos unfortunately might not be acquired. Hereby weigh seriously all the pros and cons before letting go interesting wire photos that are still can be bought relatively cheap.