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Spiridione Grossi

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Definition and Description of Stickybacks

A "Stickyback" (sometimes spelt Sticky Back or Sticky-back) was a type of small sized photographic portrait which enjoyed popularity in some parts of the UK in the early 20th Century, disappearing during and after the first World War.

They were tiny black and white portraits, produced cheaply and quickly, for a new mass market - the working classes. At this time serious commercial photographers were producing cabinet photographs, cartes de visite, various mounted enlargements and postcard format portraits. Their business was directed towards a middle class clientele, and having your portrait taken was still a serious and expensive business. The stickyback photographer made the process not only affordable, but also fun, often with advertisements plastered over their premises. Some photographers taking up this style of photography incorporated the word "Stickyback" or some variation into their business or studio names. For others, this could have been simply an addition to a range of services already offered. Many of their clients had never been photographed before and for some, 12 portraits for sixpence, or even at times for three pennies, was an exciting experience. The clientele attracted to the Stickybacks establishment would have been very different to those attracted to a top photographic studio; hence a number of newspaper advertisements by Stickyback studios for doorkeepers. The price was such that some clients would have been tempted to return and provide the photographer with repeat business. A newspaper report on a travelling stickyback photographer in Cookstown commented, no doubt with some exaggeration, that "the inordinate vanity of some of the local shop assistants has led them to get upwards of twenty dozen of photos taken"

The "Stickyback" name seems to have originated from the fact that the original differentiating features of this format was that the rear of the photograph had adhesive applied, which operated, as with a postage stamp, with the addition of moisture. The earliest use of the title "Stickyback" would appear to date from the promotions of one particular Liverpool photographer, Spiridione Grossi, who ran a photographic copying and printing business and a seasonal portrait studio on the Isle of Man.

Main stream professional photographers referred to their stickyback colleagues in disparaging terms, sneering at their inferior products, which were produced to an affordable price for a new customer.

Stickyback photographers exposed their plates in cameras with multi-position camera backs. This allowed them to take multiple tiny images on a single plate, much reducing their costs. Examples of two different multi-purpose backs by Marion are shown on our site here . Stickyback photographers also used multi positioning printing frames, allowing them to make multiple prints from the same part of a negative onto strips of photographic paper. A number of camera manufacturers produced multi-position camera backs, but some photographers, interested in this trade, patented special stickyback camera backs and printing apparatus. Some of those involved in designing and patenting stickyback equipment included Spiridione Grossi, Dennis Benjamin Seaman, and George Thomas Bayley. The writer is not aware of the survival of any specific stickyback photographic equipment and would welcome any information on this topic.

Higher volume low cost portraiture posed a particular problem for the photographer – when the subject picked up their prints, how to match the right print to each sitter and to do so quickly? Someone photographed for the first time might well not recognise their own likeness. Many stickyback photographers matched the client to their photograph by showing a negative, job or ticket number within the image itself, matched to the customer's ticket or a written list in the studio. The number was sometimes shown by the simple expedient of hanging a slate on the backdrop, scratching the number on the slate and including this in the photograph. Sometimes the number was recorded using a counter inside the camera which simultaneously photographed the internal counter and the sitter. Sometimes a number was propped up on the studio floor and included in the image.

Some Stickyback photographers posed their sitters under, or behind, a sign board bearing the studio name and address and the negative or job number. These often have the name "Stickyback" on the sign board, making it simple to identify these as Stickyback photographs. These photographs were usually printed and sold in strips, sometimes attached vertically and sometimes horizontally. Usually the customer cut up the strip after purchase. This meant that sometimes photos survive with the sign board at the bottom, sometimes at the top of the image. Sometimes the whole sign board was trimmed from the image altogether, sometimes a tiny fragment can be found with the very edge of the lettering visible. But it seems safe to assume that many stickyback photographers did not use a sign board and found some other way of inserting a reference number into their images. Some scratched the number into their negatives. In an advertisement in 1907, Sharp and Hitchmough, of 101-103 Dale Street, Liverpool, described numbering systems they had sold: "one form of which was, and still is, employed, consists in a frame, bearing a number at its lower extremity, which is suspended behind the sitter so that the figures appear at the upper edge of the negative. This position is adjusted by a balancing weight which the operator moves while focussing the sitter. Such a system, though valuable, is less satisfactory than one in which the numbering device is concealed from view in the camera itself" (The British Journal Photographic Almanac 1907 p614)

The size of the stickyback photograph is variable, particularly bearing in mind that they have probably been trimmed by the owner after purchase. The largest tend to be up to 60 x 40 mm, the smallest 28 x 35 mm. Where the photographer has used a Stickyback" sign board, the whole board is often only visible when the photographer has posed two or more sitters together in a landscape format. Where a photographer using a sign board has taken a portrait of a single individual then usually only part of the signboard is visible.

Below are four stickyback photographs from the author's collection. The top two of unknown ladies are from 54 North Street Brighton. The pair below, cut from a strip, are dated on the reverse 1912 and were taken at Mr Stickybacks in Dublin and feature, left to right, Miss Dolly Hill, Mrs Ludlow Carlemes (Florrie), Miss Amie Rigby and Miss Kate Young. Note that there is no trace of the photographer's sign board in the second of these examples from Dublin - but we would obviously still describe this as a "stickyback" photograph.


Some Stickyback photographers also produced real photograph postcards. In some of these cases details of the photographer are printed on the reverse. These generally did not include a sign board in the image, but postcards were sometimes poorly framed, with excessive background above or to the side of the subject/s. They often contain numerals just visible inside the edge of the image as a permanent record of the job / image number. Because of this intrusive part of the image often surviving postcard sized proofs have been subsequently cropped to a smaller size when they are pasted into albums. If the customer wanted an enlargement from the negative, they were probably provided with a better printed product without the visible job number.

Much of the research into this genre of photography was undertaken by photo historian David Simkin (see the amazing, but with that notable exception, there doesn't seem to be a lot of interest out there into this whole forgotten sub genre of smaller size portrait photographs.


1. sizes tend to be anything from just over around one inch square (25mm) square -to up to 2½ in (60mm) tall/wide by around one and a quarter inch(30mm) tall.

2. Stickybacks generally had gum on the reverse side which was activated when moistened (hence the name "Stickybacks). Over the years however this has often been lost.

3. Some had the studio name/address and a strip or image number at the top or bottom of the image. The more recognizable prints included the work "Stickyback" or a variation of it in the studio name. Others might have numbers scratched into the negative, or a simple number on a card just visible at one edge of the image. When the customer cut up the strip of photos they might trim these, so the information bar or number appeared either at the top or bottom of the image. Often the information bar was wholly or partially removed, particularly where these photos have been put into an album.

4. Uncut strips might contain up to 4-6 identical images. (later photobooth photos and American Ping Pong photos were also in strips, but with different poses within the strip.)

5. Some Stickyback photographers also produced portraits in postcard format. They often contain numerals just visible inside the edge of the image as a permanent record of the job / image number. Because of this these postcard images were often poorly framed, with excessive background above or to the side of the subject/s to accommodate the included job number. Because of this odd intrusion into the image, often surviving postcard sized proofs have been subsequently cropped to a smaller size when they are pasted into albums. Backgrounds were usually fairly plain.

6. The subjects of these portraits are usually from the less well off, probably enjoying newly found leisure time. Mainly these were individuals who had little or no experience of being photographed - hence many of these images show individuals with an apparently apprehensive, tense or even startled expression.

7. Because of the small size of the prints, the usual pose was a head and shoulders shot, looking straight at the camera. Backgrounds were generally plain or slightly mottled without an obvious design. Some Stickybacks photos taken outside the studio may include brick walls as a background.

8. Prints were usually on Gaslight / Bromide paper and today these have a rich, rather dark sepia tone.

9. In many instances keeping down costs also adversely affected quality and it soon became the habit of other professionals to use the term "StickBack" in a derogatory fashion. For example: Fife Free Press and Kirkcaldy Guardian 1 Jan 1919, in an advertisement for Campbell's Studio in High Street Kirkcaldy boasted "Photos taken by Electric light in all kinds of weather from 10am to 9pm. No sticky back gaslight effects on the faces".

Two probably stickyback portraits with the informastion bar trimmed off the prints

Two portraits, almost certainly Stickybacks, but with the information board trimmed away


Edinburgh Evening News 27 November 1905 P3
"Identified by a sticky back photograph. The farmer at Cults Mill, Fife, has for some time been lodging complaints with the police about the disappearance of his poultry. While investigating the latest complaint the police found a "sticky back" photograph in the hen-house and following up the clue they apprehended one of the limestone miners named McKinney, who resides at Pitlessie. He appeared at Cupar today, admitted stealing one hen and was fined 10s or three days' imprisonment."

Chester Chronicle - Saturday 18 August 1917 p4
Notification of the sale of equipment from the Midland Photo Co who were retiring from business. Included "Gossi's (sic) patent sticky back repeating back slide and camera and Gossi's (sic) patent sticky back and postcard printer"

Derry Journal - Wednesday 10 January 1906 p3
Report of concert in Glenvar N.S. on Jan 1st. "Mr E. McConnellogue opened the concert with his usual comic rendering 'O Mr Sticky Back'".

Nottingham Evening Post - Saturday 05 January 1907 p5
"BOY BURGLARS' CONFESSION. BELFAST MYSTERY SOLVED. The mystery associated with an extraordinary series of burglaries, which has baffled the police for a month past, was cleared up at the Belfast police-court yesterday, when two boys, Henry Jack, 15, and James Jack, 17, were remanded on no fewer than 46 separate charges. The burglaries were skilful and systematic. At one place one the burglars fell through a skylight, and, from a pool of blood which was found, it was supposed that he was seriously injured, but no suspicious man presented himself for treatment at the hospitals. At the beginning of this week the robbers' hoard was found under a wood pile at the docks, and with it the clue the mystery. Amid the miscellaneous heap of watches, chains, jewelry, purses, knives, footballs, postage stamps and clothing, the police discovered a " sticky-back " photograph of two boys, which put them on the scent. They were arrested on Thursday night, and made a full confession. The elder lad was in a pitiable plight. It was he who had fallen through the skylight, and there was an ugly wound on his head. Not daring to seek medical aid he had bandaged himself, and the wound was in a terrible condition. Ten charges were entered into yesterday, and the prisoners in each case admitted their guilt".

Top of page is a non-commercial web site for local and family historians, exploring smaller sized portrait photographs and those who worked in this trade.
This page was last modified: 12 September 2019, 18:40

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