Recognizing Copies and Enlargements of Old Photographs

Jehu Montgomery.
More. Pa.

Copies Were Popular in The Early Days of Photography

In 1868 Debow's Review observed that "many people have, in old and fading daguerreotypes and other small pictures, the only portrait or likeness of deceased and absent friends. These picture can be successfully copied into life-sized portraits, and finished in a style of excellence and fidelity to the originals, that is remarkable." As families grew and expanded through marriage, the "newer" members inevitably wanted pictures of the "older" members of the extended family. Aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews traded photographs of their children, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters, grandmothers and grandfathers with each other. As Americans slowly migrated westward, family connections were strained. Photographs were often the only way a family could keep in touch, sending photographs home or trading pictures with family members living in towns scattered across a continental nation. This urge for copying continues into modern times.

Accompanying this article is a cabinet card that by the various decorative elements is known to have been produced in the 1870s or later. The gentleman in the photograph is wearing costume popular in the 1840s, which means the image is obviously a copy made from an earlier image, most likely a daguerreotype or ambrotype (the tintype was introduced in the mid 1850s, too late for this period costume).

Look for Signs of Copy Photographs

A card photograph may easily be a copy of a photograph made twenty or thirty years before. When evaluating a picture in light of genealogical information when you have a picture that you suspect may be of a person but does not fit with the genealogical record or a subject in costume older than the type of photograph or mount would indicate, suspect it is a copy photograph. The quick adoption of the negative-positive system of photography following the introduction of the "wet-plate" negative process transformed the difficult task of copying of photograph into a relatively simple and easy operation. Although it was possible to make a copy of a daguerreotype by rephotographing with a daguerreotype camera, making large numbers of copies in this manner was impractical. With a negative, many copies of the same image could be easily produced. Further, older photographs could be rephotographed with faster modern lenses and collodion plates then printed in quantity on albumen papers. Period advertisements from the early years of the carte de visite era show that both copies and enlargements from old family photographs were popular. Daguerreotype images were copied as carte de visite, and later, as cabinet card images. Ambrotype and tintype images were also copied. They were enlarged as Crayon Portraits, a "life-size" image with the appearance of a charcoal drawing or pastel drawing. Even oil paintings were made from enlargements of photographs as small as a carte de visite.

Daguerreotypes Were Copied to Card Photographs

Daguerreotype portraits were frequently copied onto the small carte de visite or cabinet cards formats for distribution to family members. Often, the decorative brass frame surrounding the daguerreotype image can be seen in these images, identifying the images as copies. If no other indication is present, costume can be a reliable method of recognizing an old photograph copied to a newer media. For example, a portrait of a gentleman in the formal attire of the 1840s appearing in cabinet format with a card style characteristic of the 1890s represents an obvious copy. According to Debow's Review, images were "copied from a carte de visite" for enlargement as early as 1858 (in this instance to make a kind of photographic oil painting). The photographer George C. Rockwood specialized in making enlargements from the daguerreotype. Debow's Review described how Rockwood "overcame the difficulty" of making enlargements: "In a moderately lighted room, with a southern window, he arranged in the window a combination of lenses, condensing and acromatic (sic), which could be called a species of Camera Lucida or magic lantern." The practice of making copies from the carte de visite format likely continued on into the 1880s. After 1880, the cabinet card was more likely the format of choice for customers seeking to have a family photograph copied.

Copies From Ambrotype or Tintype Photographs

Ambrotype and tintype images were also copied to card photographs. These are identified by costume in the same manner as daguerreotype images.

Unusual Copies and Combination Photographs

Long before the coming of digital images, photographers were making composite images. One unusual photograph in my family collection is a stereo card photograph where two older portraits have been combined into a single card. The stereo pair holds two photographs side by side, with my great-great grandfather on one, my great-great grandmother on the other. Of course, they cannot be viewed in the normal way as a three dimensional image. But it is another example the gallery photographer's ingenuity.

It's even possible that some photographers experimented by combining images of two individuals into a single photographic print in a manner similar to what some artists do with photo editing software today.