It is helpful, for the purpose of comparison, to first consider a painting. With a painting, there are basically two options:
Original: The original work painted by the artist (there is only one!)
Copy: Any reproduction of that work (copy by another artist, giclee print, limited edition print, hand detailed copy, etc.)
However, with a photograph, things get a little more difficult. Consider the following definitions:
- Loose (poor) definition: Anything on photo paper that "looks like" an original (an unfortunate, yet strangely pervasive definition on eBay)
- Common definition: A print made from the original negative
- Time-sensitive: A print made from the original negative at the time the photo was taken (this is often referred to as "vintage print")
- Artist-specific: A print made, by the photographer, from the original negative (sometimes referred to as an "artist print")
- Combination: A print made, by the photographer, from the original negative, at the time the photo was taken.
To make things even more confusing, many of the terms generally associated with originals are often used to describe non-originals. Phrases like "original wirephoto" or "giclee artist print" or "vintage reprint" can have even the most savvy buyer wondering what exactly is being sold.
A few attempts have been made to standardize the language that is used to describe photos - Fogel and Yee's "A Portrait of Baseball Photography" uses Types I, II, III, and IV to describe degrees of originality. The Certified Guaranty Company (CGC) uses labels of Vintage, Original, and Modern to separate the photos that they authenticate. But there has been no widespread adoption of either of these systems. So the bottom line is, when it comes to photos, there is no standard definition of what constitutes an original. In fact, the argument could be made that the only true "original" work in film-based photography is the negative (or positive for slide film) and that all prints are, by definition, simply reproductions of the image captured on the film. But that is a different discussion.
So the next time you want to ask a seller if a photo is an original, keep the following in mind:
- Know what question you are really asking (from a negative? timeframe? by the artist?) and be specific.
- Try to understand what question the seller is answering.
- Look at as many of the seller's listings as possible to see what he/she describes as "original." In some cases, you'll see a huge spectrum.
- Keep in mind that with photographs, originality does NOT guarantee uniqueness (unlike paintings).
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About Masterpiece Marketing Group
We sell Certified Archive Photographs, which means we are selling the actual photos that have been sitting in drawers, folders and boxes at the newspapers' offices for decades. Whether a particular photo that was in the archive is an "original" is generally unknown, though we have done our best to identify non-original Wire Photos (see our guide on wirephotos here). Thanks for reading!