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Vintage Photographs
By Richard Romando

Vintage photographs are fascinating: They reflect our past, the changing styles, news, family life, and so much more. Dating a vintage photograph requires an understanding of the period. One typical way is to compare a photograph to known ones of a period. A well-known collector like the Family Chronicler would usually have a range of dated photographs, which can be checked out to establish a date of the photograph.

In the past, photographs were taken on formal occasions, so people would wear the latest outfits and their best clothes before a photograph was taken. These could have been taken in a studio or at home, but they would always be significant events. Hairdos, neckties, clothes and frills, and background curtains are good indicators of the time period.

Photographic processes can also help in dating a photo. A Daguerre-type photo would be from around the mid 1800s. The case would be very decorative while the photo image itself would be on a silver-clad copper sheet attached to a sheet of glass by a foil-like brass decorative frame. Sometimes the silver image could be dulled with silver sulfide, similar to the way silverware tarnishes. An ordinary photograph would cost about $5.00.

A little later in time came the Calotype prints, which were the first photographs on paper. Found in museums, they are usually yellowed. Next in line were the Ambrotype ones, which were on thin negative images on glass. These were made to look like positives by placing them against a black background with a protective case, a brass die-cut frame, a backing of black paper and gilt borders. The skin would be colored with cheeks and lips tinted pink.

Another interesting set of photographs is the stereograph. Taken between 1849 and 1925, they were matching side-by-side sets of images of a single scene. These were supposed to be seen one after the other through an optical gadget held to the eye like a pair of binoculars. Each eye looked at a slightly different image and the blend of the two images in the mind gave an impression of depth.

The wet-plate print made its appearance between 1853 and 1902 and saw cameras coming out of the studios into actual settings. This made photographing the far west possible. As the prints were large, they could photograph huge areas. It had an uneven coating with torn or rippled emulsion and sometimes even fingerprints!

You can take a look at vintage photographs at the National Photograph Collections. Some of them are featured online. Or maybe you could get more adventurous and actually become a collector!

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