The Photos Behind the Cards
Nearly 2,000 card-used photos from baseball's Golden Age have started hitting the auction block, which should further the development of the original photo market
Say the names Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Jim Brown, and Joe Namath to any serious fans of American sports history, and they will immediately offer up a story of a specific game or moment.
Say those same names to serious sports-card collectors, and within milliseconds the image of those players' most-valued cards will materialize in their brain so vividly they could describe it in detail without even seeing it.
But there are other names, too, who now passionately resonate with collectors due to the recent gold rush in card-used Type I original photography. More and more collectors have come to recognize the photographers behind those classic cards and to respect their invaluable contributions to the card-collecting world.
William Jacobellis, Bob Olen, Bill Greene, and Henry M. Barr made history with their cameras during the postwar Golden Age of baseball cards, when Topps, Bowman, and other influential companies revolutionized the industry and the game itself.
One person who has been extremely familiar with those photographers for a long time is Khyber Oser, a copywriter for Huggins & Scott Auctions. Along with legendary sports collector Marshall Fogel and Henry Yee, who serves as the vintage and original photo authenticator for PSA/DNA Authentication Services, Oser co-authored the book A Portrait of Baseball Photography in 2005.
Back then, with a few notable exceptions, card-used photos were more of a novelty item. However, recent years have seen groundbreaking auction prices such as $72,000 and $60,000 for the Type I original photos from Mickey Mantle's 1951 Bowman and 1952 Topps cards, respectively.
Oser is currently charged with writing the catalog copy for an unprecedented hoard of almost 2,000 card-used photos from those aforementioned master photographers. Among the highlight examples that have already been offered at auction over the past few years is one that Henry Yee has called "the single most important football photograph": Bob Olen's Type I original photo of Joe Namath's 1965 Topps rookie card ($66,000; August 2017).
Still to come in Huggins & Scott's upcoming August auction? Henry Barr's Type I original photo of Jim Brown's 1958 Topps card, which could possibly surpass the Namath record amount. Plus, Barr's never-before-seen shots of fallen football star Ernie Davis, as well as numerous baseball "contact proofs" by Jacobellis (which will continue to be sold over the course of the next year).
"The terminology of 'contact-proof photos' is relatively new among photo collectors," Oser says. "But they're basically the next best thing to the negative itself. The clarity and contrast of the Jacobellis images is beyond belief. You can see every tiny detail in perfect focus, just like real life. It's a wonderfully stark contrast to the mass-produced, often-colorized versions that appeared on cards. Even better, now you get to see the full dimensions of the original shot, instead of just the cropped portion that Topps or Bowman chose to show. You can see interesting background details like spring-training ballparks, the clouds in the sky, or great old advertising signage."
According to Oser, there is significant crossover appeal in the card-used photo market. Card collectors, he says, have begun to realize that the original photos are even rarer than the corresponding cards - and are often even one of a kind. Also, high-end hobbyists who own the highest-graded example of a given card may want to display it with the photo that it was actually created from.
Bill Huggins, the president of Huggins & Scott Auctions, agrees with Oser that the original card-used photo market is growing and that the offering of this collection will see it have an even greater impact on the hobby.
"The interest is definitely growing as we make more and more of these incredible original photos available," says Huggins. "Historically, this has been a limited market, but this collection has expanded that interest. It's number one on the hit parade when it comes to card-used photos. We have already seen an exceptional response in our first offerings. They have been very well-received, and that interest will continue to grow. This is such a substantial collection - one that may introduce some card collectors to things they didn't even know existed - things that have phenomenal appeal to them."
Huggins says that, as time goes by, collectors and dealers will look back at the offering of this collection as a seminal moment in the hobby.
"Up until now, there hasn't been a lot of this type of material unearthed or available. Certainly nothing of the magnitude of quality and significance as what we see in this collection," says Huggins. "This will really change things for the genre."
According to Huggins, the beauty of this offering is that, while it includes premium photos of stars and Hall of Famers that will get all the attention and boost the interest, it also has photos of common players that will give every collector the opportunity to be involved.
While much of this collection is comprised of card-used photos, it also contains photographs like the one shown above featuring Roberto Clemente that were not used for cards.
"Without a doubt, these photos are within the price range of any collector. Not a Mantle or Clemente, but an original photo of a Chicago Cubs player from the 1950s that was used on his card. Photos like that are within anyone's price range, and I'm sure there are a lot of Cubs collectors who would love to own something like that," he says.
Calling the offering "something the hobby has never seen before," Huggins says that along with the original photos used to produce cards, additional photos taken during the same photo shoots will also garner interest and be available at prices that will promote inclusion for those of every budget.
"As with any collectible, getting new people interested, involved, and knowledgeable is how the genre grows. It takes a collection of this significance to make that kind of impact within the hobby, which, in turn, will see these photos increase in desirability and value. The other thing this will possibly do is open the door to see if there are more of these original card-used photos out there somewhere. That will really be interesting, to see what may surface."
As for how the collection came to be, Huggins says it first came to his attention at a sports show.
"The consignor was a sports photographer himself who had told me about a collection he had helped put together over many years with original photographs by some of the biggest names in sports photography," Huggins says. "He was really interested in developing a relationship with us because he felt the time had come to part with the collection and he wanted us to represent it."
Expressing the honor he feels that the consignor selected his company to handle the collection, Huggins says the photographs that make up this offering are the types of items his clients, and every collector, loves more than any other.
"I've never known a collector who wasn't really attracted to one-and-only items," Huggins says with a laugh. "In this offering, that is the case with each item. Every single photograph is unique. They're what I call 'one and done.' Once we've sold any one of these photos, that's it, we're done, because there is only one."
Having decided to make the collection available through auctions over the next year, Huggins says that along with these photographs being among some of the most special items the company has handled, the cherry on top is that each photograph has been certified by Henry Yee of PSA/DNA.
"The stamp of approval by PSA/DNA will play a big part in this offering," says Huggins. "Just as with cards, or any other items authenticated and graded by PSA/DNA, having these photos certified by them weighs heavily in a bidder's mind. When it comes to high-end and one-of-a-kind items, the PSA/DNA stamp of approval makes all the difference in the world."
Yee himself has called this offering incredible: "Original TYPE I photos featuring images used for trading cards is one of the hottest segments of the sports photography market. This is perhaps the largest collection of its kind found intact. With the majority of the photos being the only TYPE I surviving example of each known, the offerings provide an opportunity for photo collectors - as well as card collectors - to add a relatively unique piece to their collections."
According to Yee, the reason for the rise is twofold. "First of all, the 'image' quality of a photograph will always be superior to that of a trading card as the cards were made on a 'printing press.' Simply put, cards are technically 'copies' of the photograph, while a photograph was printed off a 'negative' and is the purest form of the 'image' in terms of contrast, clarity, and fine detail."
"Furthermore," Yee continues, "collectors are finally realizing that the cards themselves were mass-produced for the public and saved over the years, while the surviving photographs themselves were so limited to begin with as they were primarily made and used to serve newspapers and magazines for publication use. Over the years, these photo libraries were discarded, lost, or squandered."
"But it was the rise of the digital age in the mid-80s that did most of these news photo collections in as the majority were completely discarded by the newspaper companies. There was no longer a need to keep massive rooms filled with cabinets of photographs when an entire photo library can all be kept on a neat stack of floppy discs that occupy a single desk drawer. In some cases, a true period TYPE I photograph might be one of the only known surviving specimens of a particular image."
The rarity that many photos offer is not limited to ones used for trading cards. "This is not just photographs used for cards," said Yee. "When any TYPE I photograph comes to market, it might be a collector's only chance to snag it as another TYPE I specimen featuring that exact same image might never come around."
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The Genesis of an Exceptionally Unique Collection
Sports Market Report recently caught up with the consignor of this Golden Age card-used photo collection, who explained the impetus of how Bob Olen's Namath photo, and hundreds of other images in the Olen archive, came into his possession after a call from the sportscaster George Michael following Olen's death.
Consignor: George Michael put me in touch with the Olen family and we ultimately met so I could look over his archive. I knew some of his images had been used on cards and that he had been the official team photographer for the Yankees from 1947 until 1968. So that really sparked my interest because he had been there during the Mantle and DiMaggio days - the years when the Yankees had all those great players and teams.
Sports Market Report (SMR): Why did Michael come to you to help the Olen family?
Consignor: He knew I was a sports photographer and that I had already purchased a lot of vintage baseball photos and negatives. My brother, who had also been a sports photographer, happened to meet the person who purchased the Jacobellis archive while both photographers were on the sidelines of an NFL game. As the years went by, we got to know him and learned about a collection of photos, both his and those of other photographers, that he had assembled. The more we looked into what he had, the more we discovered that so many of the photos were ones that had been used on cards.
We recognized some right away, and then began doing some investigating and found there were others - photos of obscure players that maybe only had one or two cards. Jacobellis had made contact proofs of the negatives of all the photos he had taken. He did that because it would make it easier for him to find what he was looking for.
These photos were all in the original negative folder envelopes and were in perfect condition. So, we purchased the contact prints and went through them to catalog the collection and identify any that had been used on cards. Jacobellis contributed images to several card sets in the 1950s including the Bowman cards from 1952 to 1955, Topps cards from 1953 to at the least 1958, the Red Mans from 1952 to 1955, and the 1954 Red Heart cards.
The more we went through everything, the more incredibly unique stuff we found, like Jacobellis' photos that were used for the 1955 Robert Gould white-plastic figure cards and the images he shot that were used in 1967 for an issue put out by Topps, a Venezuelan set that featured both retired and active players. Jacobellis also produced many self-published magazines throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s that featured his photos.
SMR: Aside from the fact that they existed in pristine condition, what were some of the interesting things you discovered about these photos?
Consignor: That Jacobellis used the back of the contact prints as an accounting system, to keep track of what card companies the photos had been submitted to. Then there is also information on the backs of some of them that was generated by the card manufacturers. This includes several of the photos used for the 1954 Bowman set that include the actual card number written in red grease pencil.
I guess the most interesting thing about many of them is that it provides a fascinating insight into the card manufacturing process back then. Other photographers, like Bob Olen and Henry M. Barr, used the negative sleeves for their notes about the image, settings to print the photos in the darkroom, and numbers of prints made from each negative.
SMR: One thing that is, of course, obvious is that the photos are all in black-and-white, while the cards themselves are in color.
Consignor: Right. People who know the cards from that era just assume they were shot in color, but they weren't. They were shot in black-and-white and then just the photos that were selected to be used for the cards were colorized by the card company's art department.
This was done exclusively up until 1957, and occasionally into the 1960s they were still shooting black-and-white and then colorizing the photos. That is why some of the color in those old colorized cards is a bit off. The colors are certainly not as clear or vivid as they became once they actually started using color film.
SMR: The process of shooting and processing in color had been around for some time by the 1950s. Why did they shoot them in black-and-white?
Consignor: It was done because of cost. Back then, color film was expensive. It was expensive to process color negatives and print photographs in color. It was a lot cheaper to shoot in black-and-white and then just colorize the one photo they selected for use. I'm sure, back then, paying a guy maybe $25 to color the one shot used for a card was a lot less expensive.
Remember, these were four-by-five prints. So, if you had a guy out there shooting four-by-five color film and making the corresponding prints, it would have cost a lot when you start thinking of all the shots you would need in order to make a set consisting of a couple hundred cards. And Topps often used two images per card, so it would have been really expensive.
SMR: There are many card collectors who are just beginning to learn about these original card-used photos, about the differences between a Type I and a Type II, and what a contact proof is. As this collection makes its way past the auction block and out into the hobby, this is really going to open a new genre for a lot of people who love cards.
Consignor: I think it will. After all, no matter how rare a card is, the fact of the matter is there were thousands of cards printed - and in some cases, many more than that, plus multiple print runs. But no matter how many cards were printed, there was only one original, photographic print that was sent to the card manufacturers to create each individual card. Today, if there are only a few examples of a card known to exist, it is because the rest have been lost to the ages. With the photos, however, there was often only one printed.
SMR: How many photos will you be offering through Huggins & Scott?
Consignor: We originally had about 2,000 card-used images, and then, at least that amount of non-card-used images. We've done about five offerings so far, and we'll have enough to keep making things available well into next year.
SMR: As a photographer yourself, what is it that you appreciate most about these photos?
Consignor: So many things. But, purely from their subject matter, I appreciate how much thought and planning went into a lot of them. When you look at a card, you just see the image of a player, but there's always a lot of behind-the-scenes work, forethought, and preparation that goes into capturing the images.
Getting the right photograph is something the casual card collector doesn't typically think about. When you look at how the images used for the 1955 Topps Doubleheader set had to match up the lower legs of different players, you would have to have a group of different poses planned out to make the set possible.
Then, when you see that the images used were captured over the course of a couple of years, it would take a great deal of planning by the photographer and the Topps editor to make the set possible. In addition to that planning, Jacobellis still made sure that the backgrounds for the photos made the photos stand on their own as art, even though he knew the backgrounds would be eliminated in many instances for the card.
When you have the opportunity to view an entire collection from a photographer, you get to see the images that are familiar and the ones that have never been seen by the public. The Henry M. Barr archive includes several images showing Henry working to capture the preseason photos of the Cleveland Browns. Seeing all the images that were taken during the rookie photo shoots for Jim Brown, Ernie Davis, Paul Warfield, and John Havlicek provides a unique insight into the process to capture the images.
When Henry Barr and Bill Greene made the contact prints for their negatives, they made white-bordered prints. Jacobellis and Bob Olen made contact prints of the entire negative, showing the borders of each piece of film.
SMR: In your collection, and let's include your own work, is there anything that is so special you'll never consider giving it up?
Consignor: [long pause] I think the answer to that is no. I have done a lot of work I'm very proud of and I have collected phenomenal images that were done by some of the greatest sports photographers of all time, but no matter how great an image may be, none of us get to take any of them with us when we're gone. So, no, there is nothing I'm that attached to. I know a photographer who once told me he has five original color slides that he is so proud of, so attached to, that he wants to be buried with them.
Well, I don't get that at all. If those five shots are what he considers to be the best work of his entire career - of his entire life's work - then why would you want them to be hidden away where no one will ever get to enjoy your artistry. It makes no sense to me to have the things you prize the most just turn to dust. I don't understand someone who takes the time to go to games, set things up, plan to get a perfect shot, and then wants them to be buried and forgotten. That is why I want these photographs in the possession of collectors. These images should become treasured by collectors - they should be passed on, bought and sold, displayed and appreciated.
SMR: These photographs really are items that will have a big impact on the hobby.
Consignor: I believe they will. Having the opportunity to own and collect the original images of these legendary photographers from this very special era of sports and photography is something exceptionally unique to a relatively short period of time - less than 30 years. We will never see anything like them created again.
In today's digital world, the images used on cards don't get printed, except on the cards. So these are rare items. They are one-of-a-kind, and whenever you have the chance to own something like that and to preserve it for future generations, I would say it's a very special opportunity that will have great impact.