Title: How to Identify and Date Your Vintage Photos

By Fernando Morales 

Identifying vintage photos can be a fun, and sometimes lucrative, mystery to solve. There are a lot of clues to follow to help you figure out when the photo was taken, and whether or not it is indeed vintage. So, where do you start for solving the mystery of the vintage photo? Here are a few clues to help you out. 

  1. Stamps

A stamp can be your biggest clue in the photograph. It can tell you who the photographer was, the company for which the photo was made, why it was made, and when. 

One of the first things to look for in a stamp is the zip code. Just count the digits in the zip code. The general rule is that the fewer the digits, the older the print. Those with five digits date to the 1960s or later as that’s when countries in Europe and North America  changed zip codes to five (or more) digits. 

The next thing you can do is check the name of the photographic agency and research their years of activity. The following are some of the agencies that had years of activity from the early 1900s onward: 

  • Bain News

  • Underwood & Underwood

  • Pacific and Atlantic

  • Associated Press

  • Acme News

  • Central Press

  • United Press International

  • Magnum Photos

  • London Features International

  • Sygma and Corbis

A stamp will help a collector make an educated judgment about the photograph and they come in all shapes and sizes. Photographers or organizations might have placed a stamp on the image. Sometimes an image carries stamps from both, and if the organization or photographer that created the print is a famous one, that would probably increase the value of your vintage photo.   

It helps if you study and keep records on the stamps common for your favorite collectible photos. You can learn about the various kinds of stamps just performing random searches in our archive. 

Additionally, other collectors and dedicated websites can fill you in on identifying the different stamps. 

It’s also a good idea to learn as much as you can about the history of the companies and photographers in your area of interest. For example, George Grantham Bain was a famous New York photographer who died in 1941, so you can be certain an image with his stamp is a vintage photo. 

It’s important to realize, however, that numerous photographers and companies also printed later generation photos, so their stamp might not indicate it’s a vintage photo. In that case, it’s necessary to consider other clues. 

  1. Photo Paper Branding

Another clue as to whether you have a vintage photo is the manufacturer’s brand name printed on the back of the image. Since manufacturers changed branding designs regularly, they can often be used to determine a general time frame for the image. This can be particularly helpful for determining the difference between an original photo and reprint made years later. 

For the collector, it’s important to keep a list of the brandings you come across, including those for recent photos you have. Those can help you distinguish a modern reprint from an original vintage photo. Modern snapshots will likely have Kodak and AGFA branding on the back. 

Common Kodak Brandings

Kodak’s been around a long time, and their brandings can indicate the age of the photo. Four of the common brandings and their dates are as follows: 

  • ‘Velox,’ indicates a date in the 1940s - 50s;

  • ‘Kodak/Velox/Paper,’ indicates a date in the 1950s - 60s; 

  • ‘A Kodak Paper,’ indicates a date in the 1960s and into the early 1970s; 

  • ‘THIS PAPER / MANUFACTURED / BY KODAK,’ indicates a date in the 1970s - 80s. 


3. Optical Brighteners

In the 1950s, manufacturers who wanted to increase the brilliance of silver gelatin photographs and to get whiter whites began experimenting with the addition of optical brightening agents (OBAs). The addition of the agents allows you to study the photographic paper with UV light. Look for differences in the glow coming off the surface. The older the photo, the less it will reflect these brighteners in the image, and vintage photos printed before 1950 should not have any sign of whiteners. 

4. Type of Paper

Lastly, the type of photographic paper can help determine the date. Resin coated (RC) photographic paper was introduced in the late 1960s, and it has a softer plastic feel when compared to the traditional fiber based (FB) paper used previously. Additionally, using a magnifying glass can help you identify clues to the paper manufacturer, which will be found on the back of your image. 

These techniques are some of the best ways to determine the age of your photo, and to distinguish a vintage photo from a more recent reprint. It’s a mystery worth solving since some vintage photos can be quite valuable, but for the collector the knowledge is just as valuable!

About the author: 

Fernando Morales is a photography researcher, consultant and retired photojournalist with 25 years of experience working in the newspaper industry. He is the Head Curator for IMS Vintage Photos. 

Read more about Collecting Press Photos on our collectors web page : https://imsvintagephotos.com/collectors