For early 1900s newspapers and magazines, there was no overnight national distribution of images. News photographs were shipped by plane, train and even boat. While this was okay for the many popular monthly magazines, most early daily newspapers had relatively few images and fewer still that were dated.
While turn of the century news services could send the printed text of a story via telephone lines (‘wire’) to subscribing newspapers, they also wanted to be able send photographs in a similar way. Originally, this was just a pipe dream. Even today the idea of sending photographs over the telephone sounds incredible. The invention of the wirephoto process eventually led to overnight photograph distribution.
The wirephoto process allowed photographic images to be transferred through telephone lines. The process required a large, expensive wirephoto machine both at the source and at the receiving end. The original photograph was placed inside the wirephoto machine. Much like with today’s computer scanner, an electronic eye scanned the photograph and translated it into electrical impulses. These impulses were sent through the telephone wire to the identical wirephoto machine at the receiving end. At the receiving machine the impulses were translated to light that was used to develop the image onto photographic paper. The development would take minutes to over an hour, as the photographic paper was slowly exposed line by line. In fact, the ultimate way to identify the wirephoto (the received image) is to look for the tiny horizontal or vertical lines in the image.
The result was that that the receiving newspaper had a copy of the original photograph that it could use to make prints for the newspaper. This wirephoto had an identical image to the original photograph, but of lesser quality.
A wirephoto could be sent simultaneously to many receivers. The Associated Press could put the original photograph into the wirephoto machine and send copies to the Seattle Times, New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and Green Bay Press-Gazette all at once. The Associated Press’ main office in New York City could send wirephotos to its regional office in Atlanta, and the Atlanta office could send wirephotos to the New York City office. As you can imagine, this made photograph distribution quicker and more efficient than transporting a box of photos by train.
While the wirephoto process was invented in 1921, and AT & T had it’s first commercial wirephoto service in 1925, it took at least a decade for the process to be used widely. The early machines were large, overly expensive and the process unreliable. The early wirephotos were usually of poor quality and hostage to the fickleness and ‘breaks’ of the telephone lines. When someone sent a wirephoto across the telephone lines, it often took more than an hour and the sender had no idea if a recognizable image would be received at the other end. Before 1935, wirephotos were only used for especially important, breaking news.
In 1934 Associated Press (AP), the world’s largest news service, installed an advanced and effective wirephoto system. Starting the following year, the wirephoto system became practical. Soon after other major news services installed their own wirephoto systems. This included AP’s rivals International News Photos, United Press Association and ACME Newspictures.
Though press photos were still distributed the old fashioned way, and newspapers and magazines still hired their own photographers, the wirephoto system was the dominant form of international photo distribution from 1935 until the mid 1970s.
Beyond wirephotos: laserphotos, digital, computers
While the wirephoto process was a revolution, it still was not perfect. It was only a matter of time for the system to be replaced by modern technology.
In the 1970s, Associated Press instituted the Laserphoto system. This system sent images to subscribers more quickly and with higher resolution images. Associated Press updated this system in 1989. Full color images were transmitted at the speed of seconds per photograph. These images were displayed on monitors and distributed in digital form. The result was newspaper and magazine pictures of much higher quality and the more common use of color pictures.
For collectors, laserphotos are easily identified because of their modern period (mid 1970s-90s) and because they typically have ‘laserphoto’ printed on the front.
Today, a variety of news service photos are still made, many in full color. As with old news service photos, they often have identifying stamps or tags on the back, or the information is printed as part of the image on the front. Many photographs are distributed digitally, from computer to computer, and a ‘hard copy’ is never made. For example, if you are a magazine editor and your magazine is a subscriber to Corbis, a photo service founded by Bill Gates, you can get your images online. You log on at the Corbis website, go through the online image libraries and select which images you want. Corbis gives you the high quality versions in digital form and charges you for their use.
Corbis owns many of the images, but also represents thousands of photographers, magazines, newspapers and other organizations. For a particular photo, part of your payment will go to Corbis and part will go to the photographer or magazine that owns the copyright. Just as with Associated Press or United Press in 1935, Corbis and other modern photo services are giant clearinghouses of images for the publishing and advertising industries.
Qualities that identify wirephotos
** Tiny horizontal or vertical lines in the image. The wirephotos were developed in lines, much like a computer print or television image. In fact, the wirephoto machine was the father of the television. In the receiving wirephoto machine, the emitted light was slowly passed over the photographic paper line by line. Under close inspection the wirephoto will often have a line pattern. Sometimes it can be seen up close with the naked eye. Sometimes a magnifying glass is needed. It often appears as jaggedness to a person or car’s edge in the image. If there was an interruption in the telephone line during transmission, there sometimes is an obvious ‘break’ line, squiggles or similar marks in the image. The line pattern is the ultimate way to identify wirephotos.
** A photograph of the caption, rather than the physical caption. During the making of many wirephotos, they would place the
paper caption strip at the bottom of the source photograph, and that would be part of the scanned image sent through the telephone wires. The resulting wirephoto will have the caption as part of the photographic image. If you run your fingers across the caption you won’t feel it.
Wirephotos that have the caption in the front image are almost always vintage to the date given to the caption (‘AP Wirepoto, 12-1-1962: John F. Kennedy visits with…”). This means it’s easy to date most wirephotos.
** Oversized, irregular borders. If you’ve ever put a document in a Xerox machine or computer scanner you know that if the document is smaller than the scanning bed you will end up with a Xerox or scan showing the document surrounded by a background. If you are making a digital image for an auction, you will often crop out the background clutter. This is often the case with wirephotos. The wirephoto machine’s bed was often bigger than the source photo, and the resulting wirephoto can have a ‘picture within a picture’ effect or white borders with irregular dimensions (e.g., one edge much wider than the others). Some wirephotos have normal borders.
** Lesser quality than the source. Wirephotos often have nice and presentable images, but many wirephotos have faded or muddy images. At first glance, they will usually appear less crisp and rich than an original image. This in part explains why the original photo is more desirable than the wirephoto made from it. If a vintage ACME or AP photo has a crystal clear image, it is an original photograph. If the photo has a less clear image, with blemishes and little squiggles or marks and less image detail, it probably is a wirephoto.
Laserphotos, which were the replacement to wirephotos, existed from t
he 1970s-90s. They have the same general appearance as wirephotos. They will ordinarily have in-the-image captions that state they are laserphotos, along with the irregular white borders.
The collecting positives and negatives of wirephotos
Wirephotos are highly collectible as vintage artifacts, and wirephotos of particularly significant historic images and events can fetch good money at sale or auction. They are important documents for historians. The images are vintage to the date in the caption and the detailed captions make the photos easy to date and identify. Only a limited number of wirephotos were sent. These weren’t commercial items sold to the public, but were only send to subscribing newspapers and magazines.
The downside is, while usually vintage, the images are second generation. This both means that they aren’t original photos, but that the images are usually lesser in quality than the originals. A wirephoto will almost always be valued less than the original it was made from.
Few buyers and sellers correctly use the term ‘wirephoto.’ They usually use the term to describe all sorts of photos, including true wirephotos, original photos, newspaper photos and other press photos. I have seen sellers offer ‘1910s wirephotos.’ The problem being that the wirephoto process wasn’t invented until the 1920s.
This means that when an online seller is offering a ‘1955 Mickey Mantle original wirephoto,’ you can’t always be sure what is being offered. Does the seller mean it’s a wirephoto? Does the seller mean by ‘original’ it was the original photo the wirephoto was made from (and of better image quality and desirability)? It can be a guessing game for the potential bidder.