You may have found a picture in your family album or archives that include people you do not recognize. Or perhaps you have found a photograph online that you are sure contains family members, but you're not sure who they are. This page includes tips and resources to help you identify your ancestors in photographs where the identity of the people is unknown.
Photography in the US effectively starts in the 1840s, so we know that we will not find a photograph of our ancestor taken much before then. We won’t likely see a snapshot before about 1900, a color photograph before 1936, a color Polaroid before 1963, or a digital image that predates 1990. Knowing a little about the history of a photograph can help you establish when a picture was taken. Being aware of the history of popular photography helps us date photographs. Photography in the US begins with...
From the top: [unidentified woman] / Désiré François Millet, 1850-59; Maritcha Lyons and her younger sister Pauline / Henry Williamson, 1860; Walt Whitman and Bill Duckett / Oscar Lion, 1886 (NYPL Digital Collections)
The vast majority of older photographic images you’re going to see will have been paper prints. Most 19th century paper prints are of two kinds: salted paper prints, popular from 1840 to 1855, and albumen salted paper prints, a process developed by Frenchman Louis Everard in 1847, that used egg white and silver nitrate, and a glass negative, that accounts for 85% of paper prints produced between 1855 and 1895. (Taylor)
Paper prints were formatted in different ways during the 19th century. Cyanotypes were blue, platinum prints were a beautiful metallic gray, carbon prints have a matt finish and run the gamut from sepia through soft grey.
In 1854, Andre Disderi developed a camera that could take 8 prints from one negative. Cartes de visites, paper prints mounted on card stock, often used as visiting cards, appeared in France in 1854, and were introduced to the US in 1859. They became very popular. People would give the 4 ½” by 2 1/2” cards to friends and family, and collect cards featuring famous people that they could buy from booksellers and photographers, much like later cigarette cards, and trading cards.
By the 1880s, the larger cabinet card, measuring 4 ½” by 6 ½” became the gift to give. Like cartes de visites, they often include information about the studio where they were taken. Cabinet cards remained popular into the 20th century.
A stereograph is a stereoscopic image, two nearly identical images mounted side by side, and taken with a camera with two lenses. The distance between the lenses matches the distance between the eyes, so when looked at through a special viewer, the image appears three-dimensional. The majority of stereographs were paper prints mounted side by side on card stock. They were popular for much of the latter half of the 19th century, well into the 20th century.
Most of the photographs we have looked at so far were taken by professional photographers, usually in a studio, and are formal portraits.
The late 19th century when George Eastman developed an easy to use roll film camera that anyone could use called the Kodak, and the Kodak Box Brownie, launched in 1900, heralded the arrival of candid photography, and the snapshot.
Candid photography means the viewer can see something of the sitter's personality, freed from the constraints of the formality of the studio. Perhaps candid photography impacts how professional photographers took photographs? We certainly start to see a lot more photographs. Gone are the days when the family’s annual family photo was the only photo taken that year.
Almost as soon as photography was invented, people wished that pictures could be in color. Daguerreotypes and tintypes were often hand colored, with pink in the cheeks, and gold for jewelry. Experiments with color photography began in the 19th century. In 1904 the Lumiere Brothers, Auguste and Louis, famous for their part in the invention of cinema, developed of the autochrome process, that gave the impression of color, but required special equipment to view.
Kodak launched the first commercially available color film, Kodachrome, in 1935 and 1936. It was expensive ($7.75 a roll, about $142 today). The colors are especially vivid, but can fade, if not looked after.
Polaroid, film that develops in a minute, was invented in 1947, by Edwin H. Land. Polaroid launched the first instant camera in 1948, and color Polaroid film appeared in 1963. 650 million color Polaroid photographs were taken that year.
Commercially available digital cameras appeared in 1990. Initially, people printed their digital photographs - and still do - but now many survive as files on computers, or online in places like Flickr. With the advent of the smartphone, images proliferate in their billions, shared online through Twitter, FaceBook, Instagram, and Pinterest, and elsewhere. Snapchat, and Instagram and FaceBook stories means that images may now last only a few hours, before they disappear forever. Selfie is the buzzword.
Looking closely at a photograph can help you work out when and where a photograph was taken. Look for the following clues
Go searching for the name and address of the photographer or studio in the following resources
Above: Quarter-length portrait of unidentified woman whose bodice is decorated with thick lace, 1880-1889 (NYPL Digital Collections)
Once the photographer has been identified, and a date established - or not - we might look to the sitter's appearance to inform our research. Approximate age and knowing a little something about the history of fashion and hairstyles can help researchers estimate when a photograph was taken. In the 19th and 20th centuries fashions changed often enough that it is possible to estimate when a picture was taken based on what the sitter is wearing. The list of books that follows describe fashion by date. If a researcher knows
they can cross reference this information with data from censuses, birth certificates, and other records that describe name, age, place, and date, to make an informed guess as to who the sitter was.
Photographs of our ancestors in military uniform helps identify the campaign they fought in, and the regiment they belonged to. Knowing this information can lead to records: muster rolls, service records, pension applications, and widows pension applications.
Similarly, other uniforms can tell us something about our ancestors' occupations. If for instance, your ancestor was the policeman in the image top right, we can estimate when and where he served. Uniformed officers serving in the New York Police Department were issued with custodian helmets, grey for summer, blue for winter, from 1880 to 1912. Incidentally, the Keystone Kops comedies were first shown in 1912.
Photographs may also vicariously describe our ancestor’s experiences. If you’re ancestor worked in sanitation, perhaps as as a White Wing, or was a cigar maker, then they likely would have resembled the people we see in the images bottom left and center. Can you guess what the men photographed bottom right did for a living?
Right: William Harvey Carney, 1864, Carte-de-visite album of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, Smithsonian; Policeman / Alice Austen, 1896 (NYPL); Street Sweeper with Helmet, 1896. (Alice Austen House); Working Stiffs: Occupational portraits in the age of tintypes / Carlebach (2002)
Besides clothes and information about the photographer, photographs may contain even more visual clues.
Look very closely at a photograph. Write down everything about the photograph that you can discern, about the sitter, the photograph type, and the photographer. This will generate clues that may help you identify the sitter. For instance, in the photograph of an unidentified woman, right, we can glean the following clues:
Description of subject
The photograph features
Above, right: Fashionable Folks: Hairstyles, 1840-1900 / Maureen Taylor (2014); Trow’s Directory of New York City, 1874/75; John H. Groteclass, entries from the 1860 and 1870 US Federal census.
A selection of further reading includes
Maureen A. Taylor