Welcome to the second in our series of blogs about how to understand and interpret your old family photos. In this series, Jayne Shrimpton, internationally recognised dress historian, portrait specialist, photo detective and regular contributor to Family Tree, Your Family History and Family History Monthly magazines, dates and analyses different types of photographs and helps you to add context to your old family pictures.
Many old family photographs taken in a professional studio bear the name and address of the photographer. This provides valuable historical information of two kinds: a helpful geographical location for the family member(s) depicted and the potential for determining a timeframe from the operational dates of the studio.
Early daguerreotype and ambrotype photos may have the studio name and address embossed on the case lid (see fig. 1), or on a printed label stuck to the back of the case or frame, although sadly such details are often absent from these metal and glass plates. This is also the case with tintypes – see my previous blog for more about formats.
Fortunately, however, most surviving 19th and early 20th century studio photographs are printed pictures on card mounts – cartes de visite, cabinet prints and the occasional non-standard sized photograph. These mounts provided commercial photographers with a perfect medium for identifying their work and advertising their business. Sometimes the studio name and address were printed beneath the image and, most commonly, on the reverse, which offered more space for publicising the details of one or more studios, and elaborating on the photographic services offered, for example, copies and enlargements (see fig.s 2-5).
Relatively few cdv and cabinet card mounted photographs (around 5-10%) were left blank on the reverse. These types of photographs continued into the very early 1900s; however, the new 20th century formats that were gaining popularity tended to be less explicit. In particular, portrait postcards sometimes omitted photographer information altogether, although occasionally a studio name and perhaps an address may be printed on the back (see fig. 6). Photographer details are also less prominent on other 20th century mounted photographs – often a single line printed in neat lettering at the bottom of the mount (see fig. 7).
When photographers identified their photographs, naturally they specified the town or city in which they operated. This important detail suggests a likely place of residence for the ancestor(s) represented in the photograph. Customers desiring a photograph usually visited a studio in their home town, or in their nearest urban centre if they lived in a rural area without a resident photographer. There may be exceptions to this general rule: for example, family members who travelled around with their job or attended a distant college or university may have visited a photographer’s studio while working or studying away from home.
Alternatively, family members may have had a souvenir photograph taken while enjoying a day trip or holiday to a popular resort. Picture researchers can’t expect to know of every journey ever taken by ancestors or relatives but have probably established where they were usually based and may have formed some idea of their usual travelling habits. Remember that, ultimately, the geographical location of a studio photograph positively confirms that the ancestor or relative depicted was, on that occasion, physically present in that geographical area. This should help to narrow down potential candidates when trying to identify ‘mystery’ photographs.
Photographer details may be very helpful when attempting to date an unmarked photograph because discovering the main operational dates of the named photographer at the stated address suggests the likely time period of the photograph. If a photographer is only known to have run a particular studio for one, or a few years (see fig.s 1 & 3), then logically this suggests a close date range for the image. If he or she is recorded as operating the same studio for many years (see fig. 2), however, then this can only offer a broad circa date for photographs taken at that address and a narrower timeframe will still need to be ascertained using other dating methods. These are covered in my first and forthcoming blogs.
Photographers who expanded their business and acquired additional studios generally reprinted their card mounts fairly swiftly to include details of the new branches. When two or more studio addresses are specified on a photograph, determining when any or all of those studios existed can help to narrow down a photograph’s date range (see fig. 5).
Researching photographers and studios
Researching the photographer or studio named on an old photograph may take time, or can be straightforward, depending upon whether accurate data is readily available. A substantial amount of information has been compiled about some past photographers and their operations. Institutions such as the National Portrait Gallery, London focus on the work of eminent society photographers and well-known studios.
Acclaimed portrait photographers, patronised by royalty and the middle/upper classes, may have photographed affluent and well-connected ancestors and if so, researchers will find much information in books, gallery and exhibition catalogues and photography blogs and websites. Most family historians, however, will be concerned with investigating names from the thousands of commercial photographers who operated popular high street studios up and down the country during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Some were short-lived or moved around regularly and left few traces of their activities but many established photographers were recorded on the census returns and may have advertised their businesses in local trade directories and newspapers, making it possible to track their operations over a period of time.
Sometimes it is necessary to consult original census returns and local trade publications, to establish when a particular photographer was recorded at a specific address. If using these primary sources, it is important to be aware of their limitations: census returns only show a place of residence every 10 years and, although trade directories and newspaper notices are very useful, not all photographers advertised in the local press every year, so dates of individual advertisements may not necessarily give the full story.
Local libraries and record offices may also hold details of photographers who worked in their respective areas and can be a good source of information. A few local organisations or individuals have published printed guides to past photographers in their city or county and some of the main publications are listed below.
Finding information online
As with many aspects of genealogy, the internet is a valuable tool and may well provide the quickest method of finding dates for a photographer or studio named on a photograph. A simple search will produce any online references to the individual or studio at the named location. Some links will be more useful than others but they should include any specialised photographer websites or databases on which the photographer/studio name appears – the results of research that has already been carried out and recorded for others to view freely.
At present there exists no handy complete online directory of 19th and early 20th century British photographers but several important photographer indexes and databases have been compiled by various national and regional organisations, local and family historians and independent photograph collectors and specialists. These cover the studios from a particular city or county, giving A-Z photographer listings with recorded dates of operation at each address, some entries also including additional biographical details.
Again, researchers should remember the limitations of the recorded data, which usually derives from census returns, trade directories and newspaper advertisements. Some databases and indexes don’t claim to supply complete photographer operational dates, while others helpfully cite their sources, in which cases researchers can judge their scope and reliability. Some of the main searchable online indexes currently available are listed below, while a full list for 2011 is provided in my book.
In general, they offer a very useful short cut and, although they may not indicate all the years of a particular photographer’s operation, if he or she is listed, they should provide an approximate timeframe for your photograph. Data for some areas of the country has not yet been compiled, however, so if a photographer’s details cannot be found on an existing index, or anywhere else on the internet, and primary research using original source material is not viable, researchers may wish to apply to a specialist website that offers photographer information for a small fee. Such services are also listed below.
Look out for the third blog in this series, coming soon. View Jayne’s website here
General books including photographer information
The Expert Guide to Dating Victorian Family Photographs, Audrey Linkman (Greater Manchester County record Office, 2000)
How to get the most from Family Pictures by Jayne Shrimpton (Society of Genealogists, 2011) [Contains detailed advice on researching photographers and extended listings of databases and regional photographer publications]
Selected regional photographer publications
A Directory of London Photographers 1841-1908, Michael Pritchard (PhotoResearch, 1994)
Professional photographers in Birmingham 1842-1914, C E John Aston et al (RPS Historical Group, 1987)
Directory of Hampshire Photographers 1850-1969, Martin Norgate (Hampshire County Council Museums Service, 1995)
Through the brass-lidded eye: photography in Ireland 1839-1900, E Chandler & P Walsh (Guinness Museum, 1989)
Scottish Photography: A Bibliography 1839-1939, Sara Stevenson & A D Morrison-Low (Salvia Books & Scottish Society for the History of Photography, 1990)
Professional photographer data providers (charge a fee)