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:

  1. Photo of an unknown group
  2. Names on the back but no knowledge of who is who
  3. Unrecognized name on the back

There are four ways to get clues as to the originality of a photograph:

  1. Clothing and Hair Styles
  2. Format of the photograph
  3. Photographer’s Studio mark
  4. Perceived age of the subject

There are five steps to identifying the subject of a photograph:

  1. Identify the medium (requires having the original photograph)
  2. Determine the ethnicity of the subject(s)
  3. Establish the timeframe of the photograph
    1. Review hair and clothing
    2. Look at jewelry
    3. Review the furniture
  4. Review every aspect of the photograph for clues as to occasion, class, location, photographer, and more.
  5. 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 ( : accessed 29 September 2010).


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