Identifying Types of Photographic Prints

Our Photographs & Photobooks department has put together a cheat sheet for identifying some of the more common types of photographs we handle.


A cyanotype print is made by brushing iron salts, which are light-sensitive, onto a sheet of plain paper. These iron salts oxidize in the light and turn a brilliant Prussian blue color. We see many industrial and amateur photographs from the Victorian era to the 1920s using this simple technique. The beautiful blue prints appeal to vernacular photography collectors, and have been rediscovered by contemporary artists.


20 photographs documenting the construction of a trestle bridge in France, cyanotypes, 1899-1902. Sold April 19, 2016 for $15,000.


The vivid color prints of a dye transfer print were originally used for advertising. Considered one of the most stable color printing techniques, they can often be distinguished from chromogenic prints by the paper base or stock. Dye transfer prints are made on fiber-base paper. These photographs have a rich color palette and occasionally there are faint registration lines at the edge of the image area where the three color negatives used in this process do not align. Popularized by William Eggleston, the technique has been discontinued.



Ernst Haas, The Creation, complete portfolio with 10 dye-transfer prints, 1962-81, printed 1981. Sold October 15, 2015 for $6,000.


Another stable color photography technique, cibachrome prints can be distinguished from dye transfer prints by their bold color palette, plastic-like paper base and very subtle metallic appearance. These are favored by Nan Goldin, whose prints have a luminous quality and vivid color range.


Nan Goldin, Brian in the cabana, Puetro Juarez, Mexico, oversized cibachrome print, 1982. Sold February 14, 2017 for $8,450.


Black-and-white gelatin silver prints are best associated with classical photography from the twentieth century. Using a loupe, these prints are often distinguished by the film grain, which appears as tiny irregular shapes in the image area. Gelatin silver prints graphically render pictures in bold lines, shapes, textures and forms, making it a preferred technique of Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Harry Callahan, Dorothea Lange and a host of others.


Danny Lyon, Danny Lyon, complete portfolio with 30 silver prints, New York, 1962-79, printed 1979. Sold April 20, 2017 for $30,000.


Photogravures are made by a “photomechanical” process, and is a form of intaglio printmaking. Photogravures can be distinguished by a plate mark surrounding the image area, which reveals depressions from the copper plate. Alfred Stieglitz’s Camera Work magazine employed the finest photogravures, and this was also the preferred technique of Edward Curtis in creating The North American Indian.


Alfred Stieglitz, Camera Work, Number 36, with 16 photogravures, New York, 1911. Sold April 20, 2017 for $20,000.


Auctions of Photographs & Photobooks at Swann frequently boast works made by these popular techniques, as well as many less common methods.