Banner Peak, Thousand Island Lake

Banner Peak, Thousand Island Lake. A vintage photograph by Ansel Adams. Negative date – 1923, Print date – 1927

“Vintage” is a term in photography that has both a very specific meaning, and unfortunately a slightly ambiguous definition when putting it into practice.  A “vintage” print is a print that is made around the time the negative was made, which is pretty clear. The question becomes, if a negative was made in 1927, would you still consider a print to be made in 1929 a “vintage” print? What about 1930? 1932? If you say one year date, why that year and not the next, or the previous? Why does it matter? With Ansel’s work, not only is the basic question confounding, but Ansel himself was notorious for not remembering the dates of negatives, and generally didn’t date the print until the late 1970s. As always, there are nuances.

Roaring River Falls , King’s River Canyon. A vintage photograph by Ansel Adams. Negative date – 1925, Print date – 1927

Ansel’s first foray into fine art photography, the Parmelian Print portfolio, was made in 1927 and included images from as early as 1921 (Grove of Tamarack Pines [sic]) and 1923 (Banner Peak, Thousand Island Lake). These would be considered “vintage” by most collectors and critics, but is it representative of the term? The negative of Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, was made in 1927; would a print made in 1932 still be considered “vintage”? For these early images, Ansel made a transition to smooth gelatin silver photographic paper around 1931-32, which to us is the cutoff material for considering early negatives as “vintage”. It isn’t scientific, but we think reasonable given how information on those prints is either very definitive (1927 Parmelian Print portfolio, 1930 Sierra Club Outing) or not at all (Monolith on parchment paper, no letterpress title). After 1930, things get a lot trickier. Photographs printed in the 1930s tend to be dated more often based on the mount board material and the label or stamp on the reverse. With these, if the negative date is 1935 or later, and the mount reflects a 30s era, it is safe to assume it can be designated “vintage”. With negatives dated between 1930 and 1935, fiber based silver gelatin prints on the 1930s mount boards, there is less certainty. Early for sure, but it brings us back to the question of how close to the negative date qualifies as “vintage”.

Icicles, Ahwahnee Hotel a vintage photograph by Ansel Adams. Negative date – 1935, Print date – late 1930s

The late 30s and 40s were a very productive period for Ansel: Clearing Winter Storm (1938); Moonrise, Hernandez (1941); and the Manzanar “Born Free and Equal” project (1944) among others. Ansel was very engaged in big projects during the 1940s, the Mural Project before America entered the war, the Manzanar Project in 1943-4, helping to found the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, teaching in Yosemite, Los Angeles and San Francisco, and two Guggenheim Fellowships at the end of the decade. Prints from this period are rare, and hard to identify with absolute certainty. In the absence of purchase documentation, we have to go by labels for date periods; the best research on this matter is by Haas & Senf, Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

Juniper, a vintage photograph by Ansel Adams. Negative date – 1930, Print date – 1930.

While Ansel was still quite active after 1950, he did not go into the field nearly as much as he had previously, and there are simply fewer photographs made later, and thus fewer potential “vintage” prints. The well-known images from late in Ansel’s career, Aspens, Northern New Mexico and Moon and Half Dome have a few image idiosyncrasies that help identify the prints as vintage. Without those factors, we have to rely more on the mount boards and stamps to estimate the print dates. With no industry standard, we say a “vintage” photograph is within approximately five years of the negative. So why does it matter? In general, “the market” places a higher value on vintage photographs. There are fewer in number, due to both less demand at that time and the mishaps of the years.

At Timberline, a vintage photograph by Ansel Adams. Negative date – 1930, Print date – 1930s

Collectors and art historians believe that vintage prints are more true to the original visualization, perhaps “more” original? Ansel personally didn’t buy into the argument that earlier was better, he thought that as he got to know a negative, he could get more out of it. In some cases, the tones are more appealing for a particular image, either from the original paper or the patina of age. As in all cases, each collector needs to reflect on his or her preferences, and make individual relative value judgments.

Bishop Pass, the Inconsolable Range, a vintage photograph by Ansel Adams. Negative date – 1930, Print date – 1930.

Last Updated on February 5, 2020

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