Words and Pictures: News Services and The Daily Worker and Daily World Photographs Collection
A few months ago I was watching Call Northside 777, a 1948 noir-ish quasi-documentary film starring Jimmy Stewart as a cynical journalist who ends up crusading for a the release of a man wrongly convicted of murder. Although the movie itself is entertaining (you can see a trailer of sorts here), I was most enthralled by the climactic sequence that features a detailed demonstration of the process by which news services (in this case the Associated Press) transmitted photographs over the “wire.” This process was constituted of a complex set of steps, each fraught with the potential for human or mechanical error. The movie provides a rare look at this process, which now seems arcane and inefficient, but must have seemed miraculous at the time.
Among the many insights The Daily Worker and Daily World Photographs Collection offers is a window into the history of news services, particularly the ways in which they reproduced and distributed images. As I discovered when I began to research the various photographic processes present in the collection, very little detailed information documenting these processes.
The earliest kind of photographic process in the collection is the sort most of us would normally call a photograph: a developed-out silver gelatin print. Dating from as early as the 1910s most of them are from a variety of news services (including World Wide Photos, Acme Photos, International News Service, Sovfoto and TASS). In the late 1930s and ‘40s, many of them come from Daily Worker and Daily World staff photographers. Although these photographs are largely stable, news agencies’ emphasis on speed over longevity in their reproduction processes means that the chemicals that “fix” the image were not thoroughly rinsed from each photograph, resulting in continuing “developing out” and discoloration.
After a brief hiatus in the late 1950s and a limited publication during the early 1960s, the paper reconstituted itself as the Daily World in 1968. At that time, it began to subscribe to United Press International’s (UPI) photo news service. At that time, UPI’s photos were being delivered to newspapers via the first generation of Unifax machines, which reproduced images using a quick and highly unstable process known, ironically, as a “stabilized print” process. Very little information is available about this format, but it was immediately clear that this particular process was the most problematic one we faced. Not only were the images were continuing to develop, they were also transferring to the materials (and folders) with which they came into contact.
UPI used this process until sometime in 1982, when it switched to its second generation of Unifax machines, often referred to as Unifax II. In contrast to the first generation process, this was an electrostatic process, very similar to early photocopying technology. Although these images are far more chemically stable, they are prone to scratching and fading.
In the 1990s, UPI struggled to maintain its place in a rapidly changing news business. Although it had beaten other news services to the photo distribution game, the Associated Press (AP) quickly usurped it as the nation’s premier photo news service. In 1991, the paper, which was then known as the People’s Weekly World, switched to AP as its provider of images. At that time, AP was providing images to newspapers with its LaserPhoto machines that, as the name suggests, reproduced photographs with a thermal process. AP later changed to its LeafDesk service, but it appears that these images were also reproduced with a thermal process. Both of these processes are chemically stable, but are extremely sensitive to light (particularly the later LeafDesk images) and are often discolored or faded.
Confused by this tangled history? I was too, so I put together a timeline that shows all of these different formats along with the history of the Daily Worker and its successor publications. A picture is, after all, worth a thousand words.
It’s amazing to look back at this history and the speed with which particular technologies come into being and disappear from use. AP’s Wirephoto service, the world’s first wire photo distribution service, started in 1935, less than 80 years ago. Today, newspapers use a completely digital system that makes the process shown in Call Northside 777 (released in 1948) seem an exotic relic of a distant past. Naturally, each of these processes has its own set of preservation problems, but that’s a topic for another day.
Finally, I want to thank Laura McCann, NYU’s Conservation Librarian, who did the lion’s share of research about these somewhat obscure photographic processes. As I mentioned earlier, information on some of these processes was very hard to come by. I’d also like to say a big thank you to Sam Markham, Assistant Archivist at Associated Press Archives, who went above and beyond the call of duty in providing me information about these processes.