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Verso: Looking Behind the Picture

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by David Lowe, Photography Specialist, The New York Public Library

Today we most often encounter a photograph as a digital image -- its only physical presence is the screen from which it shines: a television, computer, or... telephone. Disembodied, the digital image can exist in infinite places at once, with no physical characteristics of its own.

Not so, the photographic print. While multiple prints can be made from a negative, each photograph is a finite, unique thing: it has a physical size and a surface texture; it can be folded, mailed, written upon, touched (but please don't touch the surface!); it can fade away, or turn so brittle as to disintegrate. Of course, we focus on a photograph's face -- its image -- but a photographic print has two surfaces. The back side, or verso, can reveal just as much of a photograph's life story. One may find handwritten descriptions of the photo's subject, printed advertisements of the photographer's studio, ownership stamps, crop marks or printer's notations, an artist's signature or title, the faint trace of another image, another photograph. Sometimes the verso can be as accidentally beautiful as a drawing. And other times, almost perversely, it can give little or no hint of the photographic image.

The following are a small selection of photographs' versos from the collection of the New York Public Library's Photography Collection.

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