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What is a Wire Photo?

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A wire photo is a generic term to describe a photographic image that was transmitted via telegraph or telephone wires, and later, via satellite. The process was similar to sending and receiving a fax, where the photo was scanned in at one location, transmitted over "the wire", and received at another location. There were several news and photo agencies that used the technology, and each attempted to trademark their own name for the photos. The Associated Press (AP) and Kodak perfected the process in the 1930's and they coined the term AP Wirephoto. As other agencies got involved and new technologies emerged, other names were coined: Telephoto, Radiophoto, Cablephoto, Laserphoto, Laserphoto II, etc.

Early versions of these processes worked in the same general manner. At the sending station, a typed caption was usually (but not always) prepared and pasted to the border of the original photograph. It was then affixed to a cylindrical drum which would spin at around 100 rpm.  A very narrow beam of light was then projected onto the spinning image, which would reflect the light and dark tones back into a photoelectric eye, turning the image into electrical impulses which were then transmitted over the phone wires.  At the receiving end, a similar setup would have

UPI wirephoto machine

either film or photo paper wrapped around its own spinning cylinder and as the electrical signals were converted back into light pulses, a reproduction of the original image was made, with the caption becoming a part of the photographic image.  Successive generations of the technology introduced different improvements, including better image quality, smaller and more portable sending and receiving stations, shorter transmission times, the introduction of color separations and the conversion of the signal to digital instead of analog. 

Many collectors view wire photos as less valuable than traditional photographic prints. For one thing, they are 2nd generation copies (some are even copies of copies) and as such the clarity and quality of the image is not as good as the original. Also, a particular AP photo may have been transmitted to 150 subscribing agencies, creating 150 wire photos from a single original, so in some cases, they are more common. Lastly, the processes for developing wire photos used a very thin paper that tended to age poorly, with fading and toning much more pronounced than with original photos. At the end of this guide are some examples of wire photos where you can see these characteristics.

However, there are several aspects of wire photos that make them uniquely desirable to collectors as well. They have the added historical value of being produced by the "cutting edge" technology of the time. Wire photos also provide a chronicle of sorts of the American news industry - from the birth of the Associated Press to mergers of rival agencies to the disappearance of small, independent picture agencies - all this can be traced through the various markings and stampings present on wire photos. Also, in many cases, the original photo has been lost or destroyed and wire photos represent the only remaining instance of that image. To be sure, with the advent of digital photography, the wire photo is truly an artifact of a bygone era.

Things to look for when identifying a wire photo:

1. Extended caption along one border that is incorporated into the image itself (most common characteristic) 

2. Poor contrast, washed out image or excessively brown toning (varies widely) 

3. Credit line or stamp in caption or on back of photo referencing a photo agency (AP, UPI, Wide World, ACME, etc.)

 

Examples that are NOT Wire Photos:

Here, caption information is typed on a piece of paper and glued to the back of the photo.  It is not incorporated into the image itself.  If the caption credits a photo agency like Associated Press or ACME or UPI, and/or says it's a wire photo, this would be an indication that it is the original (1st generation) photo that was used at the transmitting end.


This photo has some toning due to its age, but detail and contrast are generally better and there is no integrated caption.

It is important to know that many private sellers and even dealers have a hard time clearly identifying wire photos.  Sometimes a photo will labeled as an "original wire photo."  If there is no other explanation, it is left to the buyer to determine what is meant by this.  Is it the original, 1st generation photo that was used at the transmitting station?  Or is the seller simply saying it's an authentic wire photo? 




 

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