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Photographic Image Identification

Identification of your photograph type is not always easy. Early photography processes were not always standardized due to its evolving process. Individual photographer-artists would usually mix their own chemicals, use their own techniques and even develop their own variations or improvements to the process used. In this article I try to capture the basic identification of common early photographs to help collectors and those who come into possession of antique photos to have a general idea of what they have. Through a simple inspection and a little research, you should be able to identify the process, for most common images; including the process type and what time period it was taken. Know your limits of inspection do not induce damage during inspection and do not break the seals of cased images that are signed in the mat board, even if the image requires cleaning. This can greatly reduce the value.

If more analysis is required to better understand your photograph type and process, here are a few good reference books that should help.
1) “A Guide to Early Photographic Process” by Brian Coe, Victoria and Albert Museum.
2) "Collector's Guide to Early Photographs" by O. Henry Mace
3) "Care and Identification of 19th-Century Photographic Prints" by James M. Reilly, Eastman Kodak Company

Before I provide basic photo identification information by process, I would like to mention the most common errors in describing photographs. First is the distinction between photograph process and photograph type. Both are used to identify or describe a photographic image, but mean different things. The process is the method used to produce the photographic image, including the steps to prepare the sensitive material, to clicking the shutter, to developing the finished photo. Photographic type is a generalization of a photo group, like by size. For instance, a daguerreotype is not a general term for an old photo in a case. It is a specialized process that was performed from 1840 to roughly 1860 on a silvered plate. Daguerreotype is commonly confused with Ambrotype images. A daguerreotype can be any size and has certain distinctly different characteristics compared to ambrotypes that I will discuss later. Another common mistake in identifying photographic image is for carte-de-visite or CDV images. This paper image refers to a size, 2 _ x 4 1/8 inches (63.5 x 10.5mm) usually produced with an albumen image. However, many photo mechanical reproductions are CDV’s and tintypes are sometimes housed in CDV cards to conform to the CDV size.

To start to understand the various types of common photographs, the below illustration may help to see the big picture.

Distinct features can be observed with the naked eye, however sometimes a magnifying glass is required to determine what process was used, especially for paper photo-mechanical images. The table below provides photo characteristics by process and the time period used.

ProcessCharacteristicsPeriod Used
Albumen NegativesHard to identify. They look the same as collodion negatives1848-1860
Salted Printthis versatile process was from Talbot. Made on any type of rough or textured paper. The Salted paper process produced images with a redish-brown color. Today the prints are mostly faded to yellow. depending on the degree of fading. the entire image can be faded or just at the edges. Compared to its replacement the albumen print, that will have yellow highlights.1839-1855 & 1890-1900
CyanotypeThe image produced by Hershel's process, will be on drawing or tracing paper, and the image in prussian blue. 1842-1950
Carbon PrintDue to the process of applying a thick dark gelatin, the transitions from light to dark may have a noticeable contour of the edges producing a relief effect. Images are permanent and due not generally fade.1860-1930
Albumen Paper PrintOne of the most common photograph found utilizing thin paper coated with egg white and salt. Most will have a reddish-brown colored image with yellowed highlights. Variations in the process reduced the amount of yellowing. Various coatings were used from light to very shiny. CDV's typically fall in this category.1850-1900
Calotype Paper PrintViewed by a magnifying glass this image is formed by a patterned or grained structure1870-
Collodian NegativesMost common negative image with high resolution. They have a milky or creamy look The coating was manually appied so it is irregular at the edges. Finger prints are also sometimes found on the corners or edges. Cracking due to shrinkage may exist. 1851 to 1885
Collodion Positive Print or AmbrotypeThis common photo has many variations. It is characterized by a negative glass plate image with a black background that is cased. The black background was either the back of the glass painted with black varnish or a black felt or black paper inserted in the back of the glass. The image color varies due the different variations in process, from white to creamy to silver. Since chemicals were applied manually, there may be signs of irregular black edges or black corners.1852-1890
DaguerreotypeDags are easily identified. They are typically cased images with glass to protect the image as recommeded by Daguere himself. The image is gray on a silver mirror like surface. Sometimes the image has been hand colored. You must angle the image to be able to view it or hold under a bright light to diffuse the mirror reflections. 1840-1860
FerrotypeThe Cheaper Tin type photo, The common ferrotype is typically not marked, not cased, poor quality and is captured on a thin bendable metal plate. 1855-1930
Half-Tone Paper Print Sometimes referred to as Letter Press, this image is identified by viewing under a magnifying glass the regular dots or lines of differing size or thickness1880-?
The melainotype is a collodion positive on a black enameled tin plate. This is the first “tin type” photo and the images are typically cased with glass over the plate. The plate is thicker and not easily subject to bending, compared to the more modern and cheaper Ferrotype plates. The image is usually dark. The plate itself typically has a stamp on the top “FOR NEFF’s PAT. 1852”. A simple test without removing the photo is to slide a magnet over the image glass to see if iron exists.1855-1862
Photogravure Paper PrintThis reproduction of a photo is best viewed by a magnifying glass. the image will be formed by a grainy appearance with no regular structure 1889-1900

Photographs can also be dated if the artist – photographer is known. A large amount of early photographers and the time periods they were active are documented on the internet. A good reference is Craig’s daguerreian registry on the internet. Additionally the pose and style of dress can also provide clues as to the photos date. See the historic Camera Librarium for more info on dating photographic paper cards.

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