Smithsonian Collections Blog

Highlighting the hidden treasures from over 2 million collections

Collections Search Center

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Faux or Real? A Vintage Photography Question

Faux vintage photography, that is making new (usually digital) photographs appear old, has taken off in the last few years with the popularity of smart phone photography apps.  With a few finger swipes across your phone’s display you can make digital images look like they were shot with old film cameras. What’s more, these apps not only simulate the coloring, shape, and style of many old photos, but they also imitate image deterioration. For example, some apps add effects to your photographs that mimic the shift in hues images undergo when dyes start to deteriorate. Some add scratches, stains, or dust that you may find on old images. Other apps add borders of iconic photo formats, such as the white edges around a Polaroid image.  
Faux vintage photo I shot with my phone

So, what exactly are these faux vintage photos imitating? What are the real photos they are based on?

One of my favorite aspects of working as a Photo Archivist is identifying photographs and the processes that were used to create them usually decades ago. At the Smithsonian we have images in our collection that range from the very early days of photography to contemporary images- from daguerreotypes to digital.  

Here are some interesting photographs that I found in our archival repositories via the Smithsonian Collections Search Center.  I can’t cover in this short blog article every type of photographic process, deterioration, and other factors like camera, lens, and filters types that affect the overall look of photographs. So instead, I’ll give a quick overview of some of the most popular types of real analog photos imitated by faux vintage photo apps. 

Albumen prints
Albumen prints were the most popular type of print in the late 1800s. Created mostly between 1850 and 1920, they were usually yellow/brown or purple/brown in hue, depending, for example, on whether they were toned in a darkroom or if the images deteriorated over time. When albumen prints begin to deteriorate they yellow and also begin to fade, especially in the highlights or lighter portions of the print. As the albumen layer of the photo begins to deteriorate it also leaves a crackle-like pattern on the surface of the image. You can observe this more easily by holding the image almost parallel to the light source and looking at it in raking light. 

Whirling Dervishes, NAA INV 04027200

Felix Bonfils’ 1867 albumen print of whirling dervishes from the National Anthropological Archives appears to be in great condition for its age, but it does show signs of deterioration. Notice how the pattern on the carpet has faded, as have the details and folds in the white clothing. The image also has a variety of scratches, missing corners, and it has yellowed in the upper left hand corner. By imitating details like these, faux vintage photographs can look so authentic.

Gelatin silver prints
Gelatin silver prints were mostly produced between the mid 1880s to early 1990s. If you have any black and white snapshots of your family from the 1920s onwards, chances are good that they are gelatin silver prints.  These prints sometimes develop an interesting deterioration pattern. When the silver materials in the emulsion layer of the photograph break down they leave a mirroring sheen effect in the dark areas of the print. Gelatin silver prints may yellow and fade as well, which sometimes make them hard to distinguish from other monochromatic photo prints, such as the albumen noted above.
Marion Greenwood

Faux vintage photography lovers may find this 1944 gelatin silver print from the Peter A. Juley & Son Collection inspiring. This portrait of artist Marion Greenwood is classically lit and composed. Moreover, its B&W form, her hairstyle, clothing, and even the casual way she poses with a cigarette are iconic of this bygone era.

Chromogenic color 
Many of the faux vintage photo apps mimic various types of chromogenic color prints, film, and transparencies along with their associated deterioration. Have you seen or created faux vintage color photos that have exaggerated yellow/ orange or maybe blue/purple hues? How about images where the colors are somewhat washed-out or faded? What about color images that include film markings and borders? These are probably imitating early chromogenic color images. Produced mostly between the 1960s through the 1990s, they were the 20th century’s most popular type of color process. Commercial, amateur, and eventually artist photographers embraced this process.

Kids Swimming Under Water
This 1979 chromogenic transparency by Arthur d'Arazien from the Archives Center at the National Museum of American History  makes me think of my youth, when summers felt like they lasted an eternity and I filled the days with sun, underwater acrobatics, and orange popsicles. Something about the colors evokes a certain nostalgia, which is perhaps why faux vintage color photos are so popular.

Dye Diffusion Transfer Process / Instant Photography
The most popular faux vintage photos seem to be imitating the dye diffusion transfer process, also known as instant photography, but commonly referred to by one of the popular brand names- Polaroid. The dye diffusion transfer process provided “instant” and unique prints directly from the camera. No longer did you have to wait to have your film developed in a darkroom or lab, you could see the image in a matter of minutes. Of course, in the digital age this sounds like an eternity. 
Three people at the beach looking at Polaroids

This 1980s example from the Archives of American Art’s Colin de Land collection documents how instant images were commonly produced and enjoyed. The image itself is a Polaroid which depicts a group of young adults reviewing other Polaroids that they just shot on the beach. Instant photography was not only about the final image but also the experience- snap a picture, eagerly wait for the image to reveal itself, and then repeat.  This ritual of sorts can’t be imitated by faux vintage photography, since the images are digital and not physical prints.

Faux or real, new or old - I hope this helps you identify some of the types of images in your digital library of faux prints or possibly in that shoebox of family photographs that’s sitting in your closet.


  1. This is great! I've been seeing those fake-old pictures a lot lately. As an archivist, I have to laugh because I know that those old color photos look that way because they've deteriorated, so it seems funny to me that people would make their new photos look that way on purpose. I guess it must be considered artistic or something! :)

  2. Wow. Great post. Reminded me of all the old photos I haven't gone through in years! I still have my Polaroid camera and some photo's...