Press photos

Press photo 1


Press photos, or Publishing photos are undoubtedly one of the widely available and most affordable collectible paper items sought after either as separate or secondary subject of collecting. Originally intended to portray current events and latest developments without bias, press photos with their once primary mission of impartial description turned soon into a tool of displaying a subjective approach. Countless press photos distributed worldwide were aimed at achieving ideological and propagandistic goals of the world powers. However, above mentioned statement is true with regard to numerous publishing photos depicting political and military events. 

Having completed that necessary digression let’s return to the main subject of an article. So, what is a press photo? We suggest that press photo is generally large-format pictorial or portrait photo taken by civilian or military photojournalist within tight timeframe for the benefit of particular editorial board and with the aim of usage by the press and publishing industries. In most cases a paper tag glued to a reverse and containing brief or detailed description, date and place of shooting was an integral part of a press photo. As a rule, backside of a press photo had a stamp of an agency that was a rightholder of a particular photograph.

The rise of popularity of press photos falls on the beginning of the XX century and concurs with the creation of professional news and photo agencies across the Europe and the USA.

Although every self-respecting newspaper or magazine always had its own staff photographers, the latter were naturally enough not able to provide their publications with images covering international events. A helping hand was lent by big news services who had a wide network of their own photographers abroad at their disposal, distributed photos shot by smaller services as well as by independent photographers. As a result those agencies had accumulated tons of various images stored in their archives that were supplied to plenty of newspapers, magazines, publishing houses and advertising agencies all across the globe.

It’s worth mentioning here that not all the press photos were intended to be used for printing in a newspaper or a magazine, most of them were kept by news agencies for their own files being considered unsuitable for various reasons. Thus, allegation that every press photo was published at least once must be regarded as a delusion.

As it was stated above, press photos may be collected as separate items or as auxiliary articles. Some images are truly unique in terms of subjects that might not be easily found on amateur pictures. The rarest press photos are those portraying famous politicians and military leaders as well as various official functions held behind closed doors.

Value of press photo is determined by the rarity and historical value of its subject and fluctuates from nominal price to several hundred dollars. As press photos from both World Wars and the interwar period are the most longed-for by modern-day collectors, it may be admitted that many of such images might be considered as rare as survived amateur pictures. On the one part, several copies of a press photo might exist thus eliminating its singularity, but on the other part it’s safe to say that other copies as well as original negatives might be irretrievably lost or damaged. Thereby every press photo from any collection might well be a unique one.

To make an article complete let’s go into everpresent details of a press photo.

1. Subject

Press photos may be divided for convenience into two groups, eventive and staged photographs. The former aims at fixing of a certain event within tight timeframe, e.g. summit or meeting of politicians, social or public event, fragment of a combat operation, etc. Objective time restriction usually left no ghost of a chance to photographer to correct his mistake. These strict conditions led to production of single or small-serial photos. Moreover, low-grade negatives were sifted out after development and only few (sometimes even only one) photos were sent to editorial office for publishing. However, high responsibility together with undertime made photographer spare no effort in order to deliver suitable result with regard to quality of image and composition.

When shooting staged photos photographer naturally had enough time to experiment with objects of shooting as well as with lighting, composition and weather conditions. Hence, staged press photos of inferior quality are not numerous.

2. Editing and production marks on reverse

Various amendments, i.e. inscriptions, numbers and marks executed in pencil and color crayons (red and blue) or sometimes ink, can easily be found on reverse of press photos. Sometimes these production marks include relevant text indicating successive steps of preparation process before publishing in a certain newspaper or a magazine, e.g. size, position, issue title and date, etc. 

3. Paper Tags

Paper tags

Special paper tag, or caption with typed data identifying subject was generally glued to the reverse of a press photo issued by major photo agencies. In rare cases paper tag was fixed to the margin of an obverse and then folded backwards. That information helped ultimate users to make correct description and to avoid misdating while publishing an image in their editions. Being completely unable neither to deal with a press photo after its shooting nor to determine its future mission, photographer had the only possibility to individualize an item by providing a brief or detailed description.

Paper tags had a rectangular shape and were printed on ordinary writing paper of various shades and quality or on thin butter paper, depending on agency preferences. However, certain exceptions are known to exist, e.g. some press photos issued by the German Presse-Bild-Zentrale and Austrian Scherl Bilderdienst had pink paper tags glued to their backside. With the lapse of time paper tags darkened, got yellowish or even brownish tint and became brittle. As a rule, post-WWII paper tags were printed on white paper, but some are found being made of colored ones.

Descriptions on those labels were made using ordinary typewriters or a teletypewriter, i.e. an electromechanical typewriter. Text was executed in black, blue, violet or red colors of different shades.

As sometimes paper captions were insecurely glued and could be easily removed, certain press photos are found without any tags that were torn off and lost with the lapse of time leaving yellowish or brownish paper remnants on reverse. Such an occasion should be taken into account during examination of a press photo with an extra attention paid to comparison of a subject with description on a paper caption that theoretically could be glued afresh from another image.

4. Agency Stamp


Nearly each press photo bears a rightholder’s stamp on its reverse that can be found in various shapes as well as in different colors (black, blue, red, green) and shades. Additional stamps put by purchasers are common as well.

Widely-distributed Soviet press photos show stamps of the famous TASS (The Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union), trust “Soyuzphoto” that was created in 1931 and some other agencies.

The main Weimar Republic and Third Reich-era German photo agencies were the following Berlin-based bodies: Atlantiс Pressebilderdienst und Verlagsgesellschaft m.b.H., Transocean G.m.b.H., Weltbild G.m.b.H., Presse-Illustrationen Hoffmann, Presse-Bild-Zentrale, Orbis-Photo and Scherl-Bilderdienst. This list was filled up after the annexation of Austria into Germany in 1938 with inclusion of Vienna-based agency Agentur Schostal, since 1941 known as “Wien-Bild”. To make the picture complete Viennese branch of Presse-Illustrationen Hoffmann needs to be mentioned here. Until the very end of the WWII Berlin branch of the American news agency The Associated Press covered various events in the Third Reich from their headquarters located at Berlin SW 68, Zimmerstraße 68.

As for the European agencies, Agenzia Fotografica Internazionale (Italy), Agence Trampus (France) and Service Internationale Photographique (SIPHO S.A.) (Belgium) press photos are among the most common. 

5. Editing and production marks on obverse

Press photo 4


Obverses of some press and wire photos show various cropping marks and editing, most common of which being arrows, lines, erasures and retouch in silver, white and black color as well as brief notes. Silver ink highlights are worth mentioning here as it was simple and effective way of deleting undesirable background, stressing major part of a photo and sharpening central details. Retouched silver areas of a press photo would appear black in the printed image, thus drawing or, on the contrary, distracting reader’s attention from certain details. As a rule, retouch marks are clearly visible from the first glance, but sometimes a press photo should be examined thoroughly to reveal those alterations by looking at the picture at various angles in order to notice the difference in gloss made by the markings. Anyway, retouch could be detected by lightly running a fingertip all across the surface of a photo.

Some press photos are found with clipped margins or even parts of an original image that were cut off for publishing purposes.

Combination of the above mentioned production marks strongly suggest that particular press photo was used for publishing in a certain newspaper or a magazine. Alas, it’s definitely impossible to determine whether it’s a desirable collection condition or not, as well as whether those marks upvalue or depreciate a price of a photo. Some collectors prefer “edited” press photos considering production marks as a proof of their publication even without possibility to locate an actual edition. Moreover, traces of editing indicate authenticity of a picture with a great likelihood. However, others dislike production marks on press photos and particularly clipped borders for aesthetic reasons, opting for unpublished images. Thus, those markings that make a photo appealing to some collectors can also make it less attractive to others. Hereby we leave this question unsettled, conceding a right to every collector to clarify this issue by himself being guided by personal taste, especially as an only correct answer doesn’t exist at all.



Detecting fake press photo

It goes without saying that ultraviolet light, a.k.a. black light is an indispensable tool for every paper memorabilia collector when examining vintage pictures including press photos. It’s a widely available effective and cheap device that helps to detect optical brighteners and other invisible dyes that were added to the paper products since late 1940s and fluoresce brightly under UV light.

Condition of press photos, including its wear and tear must be examined thoroughly as well. Occurrence of distinctive production marks that were referred to in this article, especially various amendments and retouch, together with satisfactory results of a black light test most probably indicates that particular press photo is an authentic one and not a fake. However, absence of such markings as well as intact obverse and reverse by no means indicates a fake, it’s just a assign of a press photo that was never used to make a printed picture in a newspaper or a magazine.

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