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Images of Our Ancestors: Identifying people in photographs

A guide to finding images of people online and at The New York Public Library.

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. 

Researching photographs

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...

Daguerreotypes (1839-1860)

  • Désiré François Millet (French, active 1850s) photographer [Unidentified woman]Photography, like many scientific breakthroughs was pioneered by a number of people, notably Henry Fox Talbot in England, Hippolyte Bayard, and Nicéphore Niépce in France, and Hércules Florence in Brazil. Being English in origin, I’ll say that Fox Talbot 1835 – Henry Fox Talbot produced durable silver chloride camera negatives on paper and conceived the two-step negative-positive procedure used in most non-electronic photography up to the present..
  • In terms of photography and family history, especially in the United States, the most important name in early photography is the Frenchman Louis Daguerre who invented the Daguerreotype process of photography, in 1839. Talbot’s photographic process showed the way for the future of photography, but his images were blurry, and he did not share his patent, which stymied the development of paper prints for a while. Daguerreotypes, by contrast are very detailed, pin sharp, and sometimes very beautiful.
  • Known as mirrors with memories, daguerreotypes were popular from 1839 to 1860. The daguerreotype is a unique, one off image - you’ll find no copies - a photograph made on a thin silver-plated copper sheet that appears shiny and reflective. To see the image, you have to hold it at an angle. Tilting the image turns it from a negative to a positive.  They took a long time to take. The sitter had to remain still for 5 minutes, so photographers would provide props for people to lean against, or back and neck braces to hold people Maritcha Lyons and her younger sister Pauline, 1860 ambrotypesteady. Photographer's assistants would hide in shot, behind tables or screens, holding small children still. Sitters were advised to wear clothes that did not reflect too much light, so dark clothes are common. Daguerreotypes come in a case, so that they may be seen, and for protection.

Ambrotypes (1854-1865)

  • Ambrotypes were a similar looking, unique, cased image photograph, made on glass, rather than copper. They can be hard to tell apart from daguerreotypes, as they also rely on being in a case to work. One way you tell a photograph is an ambrotype is when the image is flaked or peeling.

Walt Whitman and Bill Duckett, 1886. TintypeTintypes / ferrotypes (1856-1930)

  • Developed by American Hamilton S. Smith, in 1856. Tin types were multiple images produced on an iron plate with a light sensitive coating. When the picture(s) were taken, the plate was then trimmed with shears, and usually put into a case, or paper mat. Tin-types were still unique images, with no negative, but were cheap, quick, and popular. They continued to be produced up until the 1930s, but perhaps had their heyday in the 1860s, especially during the Civil War. Tin-types were often tinted with color, on the cheeks, eyes, and clothing and jewelry of sitters.

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)

unidentified womanThe 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.

Mother and child sitting in a park. 1917 stereographA 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

Quarter-length portrait of unidentified woman whose bodice is decorated with thick lace.Information printed or written on a photograph

  • Captions, printed on the front, on the mat or frame, or handwritten on the back of the photograph.
  • Information about the photographer, their name, and the name and address of the studio. E.g., Watson, Fayetteville Street, Raleigh, N.C.
  • Information about the photograph, case, or mat. The type of frame or mat may give a clue to when a photograph was taken, and may even include a manufacturers name or date. 
  • The type of photograph, e.g. paper print, cabinet card.

Genealogical clues

  • Place: how near to the photographer's studio did the sitter live?
  • Date: when was the photographer / studio in business?


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

  • the approximate date a photo was taken, based on the fashion and hairstyle of the sitter
  • the sitter's estimated age
  • other information about appearance: is the sitter dressed for an occasion, for instance? Do they wear a wedding band? Is the sitter's hair worn in a way that suggests they may be married? Do they wear jewelry?

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.

For instance:

  • Is there a flag in a school photo? How many stars does it have? 48? Then the picture was likely taken between 1912 and 1959.
  • What is the photographs backdrop? Is it painted, or natural? Is the sitter indoors or outdoors? What is the occasion? A family picnic, birthday, or anniversary?
  • Does the photograph feature any props? Does the presence of household objects, Bibles, jewelry or flowers, for instance, signify anything?
  • What are the sitters' facial characteristics? Does the the photograph appear formal, or candid? Of a solemn or happy occasion?
  • Does architecture or technology date a photo, or suggest a family occasion writ deep in family lore. Hint: the family's second television is less likely to feature in family photographs.
  • Interior design trends. Does the orange shag pile carpet say 1970s? Or does the clutter say 1890s?
  • Is there a predominant individual in the photograph? Who might that be? Does this information help establish the identity of other sitters?
  • If there are children, what are their approximate ages? Are they shown in birth order? Is anyone absent?
  • Are there textual clues in a photograph? Is a street sign or business name significant?

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:

  • Unidentified woman, standing, three-quarter length portrait
  • Leaning against chaise longue
  • Carte des Visite
  • Albumen print, mounted on card
  • Photographer: Grotecloss
  • Location: 37 Union Square, New York, NY

Description of subject

  • Medium build
  • Brown / red hair, worn with braid pinned to top of head
  • Jewelry: brooch, pearl, drop earring, no wedding band or other rings
  • Two piece outfit: fitted bodice, buttoned up at front, long sleeves, slightly flared at cuffs, white cuffs and collar; dark fabric, fairly plain design, no gloves

Using city directories, and a reference books about hair and fashion, we can add some further details.

The photograph features

  • A young woman
  • About 20-25 in about 1874
  • Born circa 1850
  • Likely lived in New York City
  • Unmarried
  • Likely not wealthy, but not poor
  • Possibly working
  • Fashion conscious

Next steps?

  • Search likely family members in censuses
  • Search for other photographs of the subject  in collection, possibly older or younger?
  • Resemblance to known members of the family

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. 

Accessing Research Collections at The New York Public Library