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The Art of Vintage Photography

Posted by Jacob Hawthorne on

In photography, vintage prints are typically the earliest prints that the photographer makes soon after developing a negative. Alternatively, vintage prints may also include prints made by the photographer well after the negative development if the photographer is deceased.

Since it is possible to quickly obtain multiple copies from one negative, by others and long after the negative was developed, vintage prints are considered original pieces of art. While vintage prints are often signed by the photographer that establish provenance, a signature is not required to be considered a vintage print.

The Early History of Vintage Photography

The Camera Obscura (~1490) was described by the renown Leonardo Da Vinci around 1490. Though not a real camera, it was a principle that described how images were projected through a tiny hole. Since there was no medium to save the images, the images were not permanent. However, the Camera Obscura was the ancestor of the pin-hole camera that many people have become familiar with. And of course modern cameras used today use the principle of the Camera Obscura, hence how the word camera continues on all these years later. An interesting side note – this principle is how the human eye functions as well.

Because there was no medium to save images on with the Camera Obscura, used only in bright light and offering only a live view, it was impractical. Dutch scientist Angelo Sala was experimenting with silver nitrate in 1614. He described how when exposed to the sun, the silver nitrate turned black. This seemingly simple discovery led to the next step in what was to become the camera we know today. However, at this time it remained a theory only.  

Between the 17th and mid-18th century, other scientists were experimenting and discovering chemicals that worked like silver nitrate did. Robert Boyle worked doggedly with silver chloride and found it too turned black when exposed. It was Johann Heinrich Schultz who conducted more definitive experiments, finding if he exposed only certain parts of silver salts he could turn certain areas darker than others.

Still the chemicals and the Camera Obscura continued on independent from one another. No scientists were attempting to combine the two separate discoveries. The chemical process was an unstable one and the handling of the Camera Obscura poor. Because of this it wasn’t deemed worthy to spend the time mixing the two together. It took until the early 19th century for scientists to begin to work at combining both. This was the beginning of what we now call the photographic process.  

Thomas Wedgewood, one of the forefathers of the photographic process, published his findings in a paper called “An Account of a Method of Copying Paintings Upon Glass, and of making profiles, by the Agency of Light upon Nitrate of Silver”. Regardless, his images vanished.  

The breakthrough for today’s vintage photography was the first photograph in 1827. It was the first permanent photograph, and it was produced by Nicephore Niepce. The photograph of the outside of his family house in France is still visible today despite lack of quality. But one of the names most strongly associated with vintage photography is Louis Daguerre. Along with Niepce, Daguerre developed the photographic technique. He made tremendous progress in reducing shutter speed that increased the quality of the photograph. His invention of the photographic process is known today as Daguerreotype.

Difference Between Vintage prints and Modern Prints

The difference between vintage and modern prints remains an argument among photography critics and photographers. A.D. Coleman, a photography critic, is a staunch believer that a print is only vintage if its made using “materials and procedures acceptable to the photographer who made the negative [and that] it is only one of several significant kinds of print which may be produced from that negative.” Under these requirements, the print would have to be made by the artist under their supervision and to their liking, including the approval of chemicals and materials. However, vintage prints do not have to be signed by the artist themselves, but the presence of a signature adds validity to the print being vintage. A vintage print is priced higher than a modern print because it is the original. The vintage print was made during the artist’s lifetime by the artist or someone under their wing, likely an apprentice, with materials and technique approved by the artist. This is what makes vintage prints more valuable.  

When stored precisely, the vintage print can be used over and over for years to recreate the exact image. However, with a modern print the negative recreated is made without the artist, without approval of materials or techniques. In order for these modern prints to have value they must be printed by someone well acquainted with the photographer who has a thorough understanding of the artist’s vision. One example of such a person would be the artist’s spouse or heir. In this case, in lieu of the artist’s signature, the print would have an estate stamp, typically on the lower right, accompanied by such person. Modern prints preserve the legacy of the photographer. These should be printed by reputable printers with the approval of the estate. Modern prints provide an affordable means of collecting prominent images. 

Vintage Photography Effects

Early cameras and the techniques photographers used are no comparison to today’s standards. The quality was inferior by today’s standards, but they have notable characteristics. Images far from perfect and flawed have a certain charisma.

Vintage photographs were in black and white so older photographs look more yellow than they do black and white. This is due to a loss of the intensity of the original black and white due to a reduction in the silver chemicals that create the black and white contrast. Contrary to the silver chemicals, the yellow tone is the result of natrium lingering on the photo material giving it a yellowness.  

Vintage prints were handled with bare hands and rarely stored properly, so it’s common to find scratch marks. Upon examination one will see thin, long marks that can go across the entire image. Usually, a scratch on the lens isn’t to blame as a scratched lens would influence the light greatly. It’s not unusual to find fingerprints on a vintage photograph as well.  


The Popularity of Collecting Vintage Photography

Many photography lovers have turned to collecting vintage photographs. For history lovers or art lovers, it’s a way to capture time. The joy is in the hunt and collectors of vintage photography revel in finding that elusive print. Some collectors are on the hunt for a particular photographer, others for particular periods in history. While it’s not about the money as collecting other mediums of art may be, there have been instances where a vintage photograph was sold for thousands of dollars, such as a photo of political activist Helen Keller that sold for $2750.

For those interested in collecting vintage photographs, there are several factors to keep in mind such as scarcity or how many copies are available. Fewer copies mean greater value. As mentioned earlier, vintage photographs tend to have scratches and fingerprints. For those on the hunt for that rare valuable print, it’s important to keep condition in mind as well, paying attention to creases and marks that show excessive handling. Is it an original? Originals are more expensive, and a collector should look for a stamp showing a date of production. In considering originality, collectors should look for a print date as close to the creation of the negative as is possible. Like anything else one is collecting, the subject of the print bears weight on its value. If the subject was famous and if they signed it, it would affect value.  

Ideally, those interested in collecting vintage photography should learn about photographic history and the language of the art. Look for books about photography legends and artists who made historic contributions such as Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Alfred Stieglitz, and Walker Evans. Collectors might want to build their collection around a theme like a subject, an era, a photographer or a format like the Daguerreotype.

There are many places to start hunting for vintage photographs such as estate sales, flea markets, antique shops, garage sales, and auctions. It’s also a great way to network with other collectors and learn. Don’t neglect those indie bookshops either, especially those that have been established for decades. Many of these bookshops offer vintage photographs as part of their collection like Argosy Books in New York City and South Congress Books in Austin, Texas.


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