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Dating Old Photos
Dated Imprints
Public Domain

NOTICE: A greatly expanded and PROFUSELY ILLUSTRATED version of this material is being prepared as an ebook - watch this space for availability announcements.

Identifying People in Old Photographs

There might seem to be two common situations under which we find ourselves seeking more information regarding persons whose portraits appear in old photographs. In the first situation, you have the name, but no idea who that person was. The second situation is both more common and more difficult in that you do not even have the name of the person shown in the photograph. In practice, it does not matter -- if you have the name, there are several reasons it might not be right, so like anything else you think you know about the photograph, it is taken provisionally, just one more clue.

The photo may have come from an antique dealer or it could lie in an archival collection. It might be part of your own family collection. Whatever its source, the same series of research steps are required:

  • Provenance
  • Associations
  • Negative Evidence
  • Internal Clues
  • Comparisons

Oops, that spells our PANIC -- and that is exactly what you do not want to do! Let's keep it simple. First you gather all the information you can about the image, then you compare information and images from other sources to see if you can find a match. Let's rearrange our acronym, first the PAIN of background research, then the Comparison stage, which ideally yields the results you seek.


First, you need to consider how the image came into your possession, who may have had it before you, and what changes, if any, may have been made to it. If you bought the photo, was it a reputable dealer? Wherever there is an exchange of money, there is a potential for chicanery. Boosting the perceived value of an image by moving it to a better case, adding a tax stamp or forged inscription is all too commonplace. Only a tiny fraction of sold images have been tampered with, but it something you need to keep in mind as a possibility.

Images that are part of your family heritage, or that came into an institution as part of a gifted collection, are usually less likely to have been tampered with. If it is an institutional collection, is it part of the heritage of a family? If the original owner obtained the collection piecemeal through purchase, the the same concern exists -- the exact nature of forgery has changed over time, but not the fact. Until recently, common photographs were of such trivial value that no one bothered to try to boost their value, so for an old donation it is only the exceptional images -- of famous figures, for example -- that need be suspect.

If the source you got the image from can be contacted, check to see if they can provide any further information about the image that might be of use in its identification. Do they know who owned the image at earlier times? If it is in your family, who owned it before the person who gave it to you? How far back can you trace it's possession? Each generation back in time you take it removes from likely candidates half of your ancestors -- so it is worth expending some effort in this. [i.e. If it was your father's photo, that eliminates all of your ancestors on your mother's side as potential subjects].


Can you associate the image with any other photographs or objects? If it is part of a collection, was it in an album? What else goes with that photograph? A frame? A letter?

If you bought it as a lone object, ask the seller if it was part of a collection, album, etc. If you can not buy the complete collection, try to get photos of the other objects.

If it is part of a collection, such as your family photos, see what associations you can discover by comparing this image to each of the others in the collection. Which one's have the same person(s) in them? Which are set at the same location? Were taken by the same photographer? Have the same style of photographer's imprint or cardstock? Which just have a general family resemblance to this subject?

Each of these clues can help narrow your search, or even provide exact details for you. You might find that another photo of the same person at a different age has their name inscribed on it. Or another photo with a family resemblance might be identified, thus narrowing the possibilities -- how often have you heard (or noticed yourself) that a particular child looks just like one of their parents or aunts and uncles at that age? Faces (and most other physical characteristics) run in families.

Internal Clues

Look intensely at the image of the person you want to identify. How old is the person? How are they dressed? Does the clothing look new, expensive, home-made or second-hand? How are they groomed? Look for any distinguishing characteristics -- the shape of an ear or hand might be seen in other members of the same family.

What is the person wearing or holding? Is there an unusual piece of jewelry that might still be held as a family heirloom by someone? Do they have a book or toy or parasol in hand, to keep their hands from looking awkward? We do not always know if such hand-held items were props provided by the photographer (which may appear in other photos by that photographer), or if they are personal belongings.

Are there other objects in the photo? If a studio image, is the background natural or a painting? Is there a characteristic floor or wall-paper visible? What kind of furniture can you see?

Watch out too for photographer tricks -- it was common, and considered clever, for photographers to have two images of he same person in a print. Certainly you didn't think PhotoShop invented trick photography? It was all the rage in the 1860s to have images with two or more appearances by the same person. Later it was common to add the background or framing elements after the original image was taken.

Now, go back and look at any associated images you found, and see if any of these characteristics or objects can be found in other photographs. It is always easier to identify two or more related images than it is a single image, since you have more clues, and the relationship provides further evidence.

Negative Evidence

I'm not talking about photographic negatives here -- anything written on the negative and appearing on the print would be examined under the 'Internal Clues' section above. The negative evidence I'm referring to here is the hardest kind to see -- what is missing that should be there?

19th century photographs were rarely informal -- most were taken at studio settings, with people in their best clothes and carefully posed. So if you come across a portrait of man not wearing a tie -- that is noteworthy.

Negative evidence may be anything or anyone missing from a photo where you would expect them to appear. If the picture is a family group, and one child is missing, you would certainly need to question why.

So consider negative evidence, though it may be hard to notice. As your familiarity with your subject grows, as you see more related images, the odds of finding some suddenly glaring omission will greatly increase.


Well, you may already have made comparisons of your target photo and any associated images you could find, but now it is time to cast the net further. You want to compare what you know about the image from your research so far, with other photographs and historical records for the location and family -- hopefully by now you have one or the other (better both) to direct further research. You should also have a date, or date range, based on the the kind of clues we discuss elsewhere.

Use the internet and local historical museums to find any photographs you can by the same photographer. Look for photographs from the same location at the same general time period. Look at local history books for the area where the photo was taken, and search the locality name on-line using an image search-engine. See if you can find any pictures that share characteristics with your target image.

If you know the name of the subject, search genealogies for that name, and original local records for persons of that name, such as censuses, vital records, and all the other typical resources used by genealogists and local historians to garner further information about people. See if you can find any evidence that ties a particular record to the clues you have gathered in the preceding steps. Searching for a named subject is very similar to searching for named photographers, except a few photographer-specific resources of course.

At this stage, the hardest part is not to jump to conclusions. If you find a 'likely candidate' do not accept that as a final solution. Make sure that is not a cousin of the same name and approximate age nearby that might fit the bill. Be thorough, and don't rest until the answer you arrive at seems the only plausible solution, after considering all possible alternatives.

NOTICE: A greatly expanded and PROFUSELY ILLUSTRATED version of this material is being prepared as an ebook - watch this space for availability announcements.

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