Photographs provide a wonderful window into the lives of our ancestors. Unfortunately, often times the marking on the back of a photograph is not descriptive enough.
Genealogical research skills and knowledge help you to read the clues in a photograph along with family and historical data in order to help determine who the subject of an old photograph might be.
There are three situations when this might be helpful:
- Photo of an unknown group
- Names on the back but no knowledge of who is who
- Unrecognized name on the back
There are four ways to get clues as to the originality of a photograph:
- Clothing and Hair Styles
- Format of the photograph
- Photographer’s Studio mark
- Perceived age of the subject
There are five steps to identifying the subject of a photograph:
- Identify the medium (requires having the original photograph)
- Determine the ethnicity of the subject(s)
- Establish the timeframe of the photograph
- Review hair and clothing
- Look at jewelry
- Review the furniture
- Review every aspect of the photograph for clues as to occasion, class, location, photographer, and more.
- Contact the historical society for the determined location of the photograph
Photographic Historical Timeline1
1837: Louis Daguerre creates images on silver-plated copper
1851: Wet plate collodion photography process was published but not patented.
1854: Adolphe Disderi develops carte-de-visite photography in Paris
1855-57: Direct positive images on glass (ambrotypes) and metal (tintypes or ferrotypes) popular in the US.
1861-65: Mathew Brady and staff (mostly staff) covers the American Civil War, exposing 7000 negatives
1889: Improved Kodak camera with roll of film instead of paper
1900: Kodak Brownie box roll-film camera introduced.
1907: First commercial color film, the Autochrome plates, manufactured by Lumiere brothers in France
1924: Leitz markets the “Leica”, the first high quality 35mm camera
1 Greenspun, Philip. “History of Photography Timeline.” PHOTO.NET: A COMMUNITY OF PHOTOGRAPHERS (http://photo.net/history/timeline : accessed 29 September 2010).