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Facsimiles & Identification
REAL PHOTO POSTCARDS
Photographs had been occasionally sent through the mail as handmade cards during the 19th century but because they were so thin, they were often mounted to board or heavy card stock to prevent curling. Though the first known photograph produced in the postcard format was mailed in 1899, real photo postcards only began to make their appearance in numbers after George Eastman bought the rights to heavier weight Velox paper and began to seriously market it with a preprinted postcard back in 1902. A year later Kodak introduced an inexpensive folding camera that produced negatives the same size as postcards allowing for simple sharp contact printing. As other companies began manufacturing similar photo papers, the postcard format became the standard way to produce nearly all photographs whether they were intended to be mailed or not. This situation would hold true well into the 1920’s
Photograph: The thin line placed around this picture could indicate that this postcard is a printed image, but on closer examination it is the result of an intentional scratch made in the negative. The enlargement below demonstrates that even in fine details there are no discernible markings of any kind. The presence of such a fine continuous tone is a good indication that you are looking at an actual photograph and not a halftone print.
Even though real photo postcards were made in a variety of ways and with different materials, they can usually all be distinguished from printed cards in two important ways. The tonalities of photos are completely continuous to the eye even under magnification, and they produce a true grey because they are the result of individual photosensitive molecules reacting to light rather than from ink transfered from a printing plate. In a printed image the grey areas are usually made up of solid black markings that are spaced out to create the optical illusion of grey. Though most of us today are familiar with photo grain, this is mostly because we have experienced large prints being made from 35mm negatives. Early real photo postcards are small by their very format, and since most were made through contact printing and not enlarged, there is no visible texture to be found even under reasonable magnification. Collotypes, which provide the finest detail of all printing methods, are sometimes confused with real photo postcards, but even they will exhibit a discernible grain when magnified. Some halftone cards with good tonal range were printed on high gloss paper to resemble a modern photographic finish, but their screen patterns will usually give them away if one is vigilant. Any image that contains a regularly patterned series of dots is not a photograph at all but a printed image in ink made with a halftone screen or benday.
Facsimile Photo: This isn’t just a printed halftone in black & white lithography; it is one that was made to imitate a real photo postcard. Its carefully laid out tonal range and cool bright whites are very similar to the photo papers that became available in the 1940’s. It has even been heavily varnished to give it a glossy look like photo paper. While it is an imitation it is not a forgery, for the halftone pattern is so open that it can be discerned by the naked eye.
Rotogravure: Without close inspection the finest reproductive printing techniques can sometimes be confused with real photographs. While this monochrome rotogravure was designed to capture all the tonal subtleties found in photography and its color was chosen to resemble that of a toned photograph, its printed texture can easily be seen if magnified. Making this distinction can be much more difficult with the earlier form of photogravure, which had no telltale pattern.
Reproductive Photograph: This line and wash drawing highlighted with opaque whites is an example of the type of imagery well suited for lithographic reproduction; only on this postcard it is reproduced as a photograph. Many such cards were printed during the First World War possibly due to paper shortages or the lack of craftsmen available to render it in print. The silver in their photo emulsion often migrates to the card’s surface as it ages, which is the first clue that it is not a printed image.
Facsimile Wood Engraving: Here we see a 1950’s reproduction of a 19th century wood engraving on matte photo paper. There are clues to its true identity as the stark whiteness of the paper indicates the presence of optical brighteners that are only present on modern papers, and even the best craftsman could not engrave lines this small by hand. While photography is capable of capturing the finest of details, the edges along lines of contrast are never as sharp as cut ones illustrated in the detail below.
Facsimile Engraving: At first glance this image on this card has all the sensibilities if a stipple engraving except for its softer look. On closer examination of the detail below we can see that the lines are not cut at all for their edges are not hard. This could indicate that this image was photo-mechanically transferred from a real engraving onto a photogravure plate, except that there is no surface texture. This is a real photo reproduction of a stipple engraving.
Hand Colored Real Photo Cards
Hand Colored Photograph: This early real photo postcard was painted with a variety of colors, but they all work in harmony with one another and the photograph. This is typical of the way that photographs were hand colored.
Hand Colored Photographs: So much paint is used to hand color the card above from 1906 that it is barely designable as a real photo. While this may resemble a badly printed card in ink, its highly glossy surface is the first clue to it being a photograph. Only the woman in the rowboat is untouched, which reveals a fine photo grain when closely examined. The photograph below is as extremely hand colored as the one above, but it was done in a professional studio. It is the result of an expressive style that became popular after the First World War, and not as an act of frustration.
Hand Colored Toned Photograph: Not all color was applied to photographs by painting them. The addition of a metal into a photo emulsion could change the color of a photograph. While toning was often desirable to remove the natural color of some papers that were unappealing, this was taken to the extreme in Europe during the 1920’s. While this French postcard from 1924 is hand colored, the overall blue coloration was achieved through toning, possibly with gold. Traditional toning baths never produced the exact same colors twice, but later self-toning papers were more consistent, which made them preferable for commercial work.
Hand Colored Photograph: The hand coloring placed on many photographs is usually obvious, but sometimes it is done to such an extreme it begins to resemble a badly printed card in ink. This is especially true of cards that were colored after the First World War as this one dating from 1949, but in the detail below we can still see the telltale soft edges and lack of grain typical of a photograph. One must be careful not to confuse random chips or cracks in the photo emulsion for printed grain.
Hand Colored Line Block: Not only does the glossy paper this postcard is printed on resemble that of most photo papers, it helps make this image appear as a hand colored real photo card due to its non-absorbent qualities. There is so much ink squash on the halftone line block that it prints as a shimmery grey instead of black, resembling the silver migration found on many real photos. In addition the hand coloring is not well absorbed into the paper giving it the same smeary look as on many real photos.
During the 1890’s many individuals began tipping in printed material and photographs onto blank cards, a practice that remained common through World War One. A number of postcard publishers also picked up on this trend; first to create stock cards, and then more elaborate versions that contained either printing or embossing or both, which often acted as a frame to the pasted tip-in. A popular ruse was to draw and image that appear to have a photograph tipped-in when in fact it is entirely printed. Sometimes this was achieved in one printing technique but often two were used to enhance the effect. Less common are photographers who re-photographed their work with a drawn or printed masking frame over it. All these illusions are easy to discern by searching for signs of a printed grain.
Facsimile Framed Photographs: Both of these postcards are real photos with the one below receiving hand coloring. Their decorative frames were separately printed and then photographed so they could be used as a photo montage. Nothing on these cards has been added through printing.
Facsimile Tip-In: This early embossed chromolithograph was designed to look as if a photograph had been pasted onto it. The detail below reveals that the supposed photo tip-in is actually made up of printed dots in ink.
Confusion can sometimes arise on hand made photo postcards when a photosensitive emulsion was painted directly onto unsized paper. The paperís fibers can diffuse the detail of a photograph as well as a printed image making it difficult to distinguish between the two. An important clue is to be found in the silvery sheen common to most old photo papers that used silver in their emulsions. As time passes this silver tends to migrate to the surface of the paper from the darker areas of the print creating telltale metallic patches.
Photograph: The darkest areas of this real photo postcard are showing signs of silvering caused by the migration of silver from its original photosensitive emulsion that was left behind during processing. The presence of silver on a card, especially where blacks should appear is one of the clearest ways to determine if an image is a photo or not, especially when it reproduces artwork. One must be careful however not to confuse the glare off of highly varnished ink for silvering.