"Manuscript" is a word that originated in 1590–1600, from the medieval Latin manuscriptus, meaning "written by hand."
Traditionally, penmanship was taught in schools and there were various matters of etiquette that pertained: personal notes and letters from gentlemen and ladies were properly written by hand, for example. Of course for centuries there was no alternative.
And of course a person's signature was her mark and affadavit in the days before magnetic strips and ID numbers. It was a sign attesting to personal attention and approval, a source-mark. The signature of Elizabeth the First of England was appropriately regal.
The colonial merchant John Hancock's signature was so admired that his name became a slang synonym for "signature." More recently, the U.S. Treasury Secretary's literally loopy signature got a lot of attention because it goes on all the money printed during his tenure. Many people like the idea of Jack Lew's loops on the money.
Handwriting itself is supposed to be a sort of fingerprint. There are handwriting analysts and forgers of handwriting (and of signatures) and charlatans who claim to decode personality traits from a person's handwriting.
Funny thing is, though—I don't have any handwriting.
Well, I sort of do, of course. But what I mean is that I don't write by hand and never have very much. When I was young I wrote letters constantly, but they were all (Emily Post turns over in grave) typed. I write to you more or less every day, but it's all typed into the ether and almost never becomes ink on paper at all. The byline at the bottom is typed.
I've been aware as I signed prints yesterday that there was something faintly contrived in that act. I'm not a Dickensian businessman whose signature is required on a hundred documents a day. I can go a year without signing anything other than a check, and I don't pay for things with checks very often any more either. Also, I have physical difficulty signing prints. My hand cramps up and my mind gets the yips (I could never write a signature like Jack Lew's, for instance—I'd constantly be making too many or too few loops). I ruined not one but two of Ctein's beautiful prints yesterday by simply messing up the signature. Ack, in the immortal words of Bill the Cat.
So I think I've decided that this last print sale is the last time I will sign any of my prints.
Peter Turnley has written eloquently here of the meaning, to him, of the act of signing a print, and how memorable it was for him when he first saw Henri Cartier-Bresson signing his. Anyone who signs their prints should continue doing so proudly and without apology. However, as Ken Tanaka mentioned in the comments yesterday (and which I've since confirmed with a couple of collectors I know), collectors now are just as happy with prints signed on the back (verso when referring to a sheet of paper, the front being recto), and a stamp is as good as a signature.
What's a stamp?
Fortunately, Luminous-Lint has collected many examples, and has a nice page explaining the various types.
Studio stamps, courtesy Luminous-Lint. The one in the middle
is Gertrude Kasebier's.
More about this later, but if a rubber stamp on the back will satisfy posterity and the market, I think, personally, that I'm going to switch over to a stamp as soon as I work out the details.
Pending further research. I'll keep you posted.
(Thanks to Ken Tanaka and Cal Amari)
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post got recto and verso recto'd and verso'd! Sorry for the mix up. —Ed.
Original contents copyright 2014 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Phil: Get one of these:
Winsor: "I for one treasure the 'AA' initials on a couple my hung prints indicating that he approved the prints made by an assistant. I don't know about collecting and debating the effect on value, but I certainly appreciate the connection to photographer of a real signature no matter how tortured or abbreviated. A stamp just moves away from that and seems to say that so many prints were made it is not a work of art, just a manufactured object. A stamp is sort of like a title page in a book. People still want a signed first edition."
John Krumm: "A stamp sounds about perfect for me as well. My handwriting is not very good, and my signature only OK. When I have signed prints in the past I can't get myself to relax and sign like I might a check. So I draw the signature slowly, which usually doesn't look so great. No fun. I suppose you could even stamp the paper on the back ahead of time, to avoid messing up the print later."
Steven Willard: "Another option is a 'chop' stamp which is the Asian version of a rubber ink stamp that are frequently seen on Japanese and Chinese prints or paintings. They are custom made and closely held and are used in place of a signature."
Stephen Gilbert: "Hey, if it's good enough for Walker and Weegee...I think the stamps are quite cool, in an old-timey kind of way. Maybe you could solicit designs?"
Jamin: "Well, it was a good story and I had to read more, but according to Wikipedia Jacob Lew changed his signature just so new money wouldn't have those loops."
Nick Rains: "I think signing demonstrates 'contact' between the artist and the print and it adds an analogue element in a digital world. I too am left handed and totally get your cramping and the 'yips' when starting to sign a print. I once got tangled up signing a 60x30" Cibachrome print and had to re-print it."
Mike replies: Ouch.