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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.

Finding Biographical Details About a Photographer

Researching biographical information on a photographer uses all the same basic processes as genealogical research on a family member. If you do not already know how to do that, find a good book on introductory genealogy. Skip all that 'start with yourself' stuff -- good advice for genealogists but not applicable to researching strangers.

Hopefully you have the photographer's name from the case, card mount or image itself. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to identify a photographer for an image if is unmarked. Sometimes, quite rarely, studio props or background features can be used to assign an unmarked image to a particular photographer. Mostly, we need to rely on photographer imprints, which occasionally can be found on the mats or cases for cased images, or may be recorded behind or on back of the image. With card mounted images the situation is reversed, and more often than not we will find an imprint on the front or back of the card that tells us who took the picture. Or does it? If the photo was taken in a studio large enough to employ more than one photographer, it will almost always have the name of the owner or principal photographer, though others may have actually taken the image. We will cover that situation in further detail in the section on identifying studios.

In most cases, the photographer's imprint includes not only the name of the photographer, but any studio name, and the location of the studio. If you are lucky, the location will include an exact street address, though for small towns it usually just lists the town. The exact street address is an important clue if you can find it, because many times a photographer moved studio locations over the course of their career, and knowing which one the photo was taken at can narrow the possible date range.

If a photograph only lists the photographer's surname -- which is often the case -- it is important to look for other clues. Again, the street address may help identify the correct person. In small towns, there was often only one person with a particular surname who ever operated a photo studio. Even an unusual surname in a small town is no guarantee, however -- photographers often taught other family members the trade, bringing siblings, spouses and offspring into the business.

One often overlooked clue to identifying the correct individual is found on cards with monograms. Use of monograms was very popular for a while in the 1880s and 1890s, and many cards have them. It can be difficult to decipher the tangled letters, and harder yet to get them in the right order -- but a couple simple rules of thumb may help. Since you usually have the surname, it is typically an easy matter to pick out that initial. Being the most important, it is often larger or darker than the other letters. Most monograms have two more letters, for the first name and middle initial, though some only have one, while others have three or even more. Partnerships usually only use the surname initials from each partner, and the ampersand sign. If the monogram is correct (most are, but a few ignore the rules) the first name initial will be higher or to the left of the middle name initial. If they are intertwined, the highest or left-most swirl or line from the character should be a bit beyond that of the middle initial.

Armed with the name of the photographer, and any other details you can derive from the photograph, you want to now compile as complete a biography of that person as possible. If there were other photographers available in the area at the time, you will want to know why your subject chose to patronize that particular photographer. Did they share ethnic background? Were they residents of the same part of town -- at the time of the photograph or some earlier time? Did they belong to the same church or fraternal organization? Such parallels enrich your understanding of the photograph and its associated agents.

Before we discuss specific record sources, let me add a few notes about research in general, for those of you have not had extensive experience in historical research. First, be very thorough in your note taking. Record everything that may be of interest later, even if you do not yet see a connection. Always record the source details for any note you make -- you may want to reference it later when someone asks how you know that fact -- or you may need to go back to the source yourself because it suddenly became very relevant due to a reference elsewhere.

No source is perfectly accurate. There are mistakes in spelling, names switched between lines, dates with the wrong year (yeah, like you never wrote the previous year when making out a check in January?). Many errors arise from transcription errors, every time a record gets copied, the chances of mistakes creeping in goes up. Most records, even 'original' records, are actually second-hand copies -- the census taker recorded information in a field book, and later copied it to that sheet you see in microfilm or online. Preachers went to homes to perform marriages and wrote down the details on whatever was handy, then copied the information into their parish register. Books or other printed material is less accurate than the records they were derived from -- how could it be otherwise? Nobody is perfect, and any substantial work will contain some mistakes. Always check the original sources if that is possible, but even they must be viewed with a critical eye.

You can never know anything 100% sure, but with the weight of independent sources you can be 98% or 99% sure of some things, and other things can seem 'probable' or 'most likely'. You can be 'fairly sure' and need to be satisfied with that, but not until you are confident you have exhausted the available sources of information on the subject.

Research has been greatly enhanced by the internet, but remember that not 'everything' is available online (yet?). If you can visit the locality or localities where the person lived and worked, local libraries, archives and historical museums may have additional information. Also check the National Register of Historic places for buildings where the photographer lived or had studios -- if they still exist, they may be listed, and there could be additional information available (beyond basic details which you will find online).

Now, as regards specific sources for researching photographers. I always begin with the database of course. More likely than not I will find some clues there (and as the database continues to grow, I hope I can change that to 'almost always'). Next, I turn to census records -- those are fully indexed (of course I subscribe to a data service for that) -- though the indexes are rife with errors, and the original records have many mistakes too. It is still a good starting place, to get some general background details, and clues for further research. It can be very difficult finding people with very common names, but if you narrow it to the specific location where the photo was taken, it is usually possible to track down at least one reference. Censuses from 1850 to 1930 are available in the USA and include the person's occupation, which is important for distinguishing the correct entry for our photographers. Earlier censuses are available, but are head of household only, and do not include occupations, so are only useful if you already have a specific location, or the name is uncommon.

If you locate the person in the census records, then you have an approximate year of birth and location of birth, perhaps spouse's name or other relatives. That gives you an 'earliest' date for photographic activity (birth + 16 yrs), latest likely date for activity (birth + 80). If the person was active in a city, I next check any city directories that are available for the years between those limits. Be sure to check both individual listings and the photographers in the business directory, if available.

When looking at census records for photographers, be sure to check the entire nuclear family -- especially the ages and birthplaces. Photographers often moved, and the names and ages of children can tell us where that photographer was between censuses. Not only does that limit the photographer's activity date at any one location, but it tells us how stable or mobile that particular photographer was. The more mobile the photographer, the more telling an imprint with a specific address can be.

Was the U.S. photographer male and born between 1820 and 1850? It does not matter if his birthplace was in the USA or not, if he was living here in the early 1860s he may have served in the military during the Civil War. Search those records, and if you find that he did serve, check for records on the unit he served with, and especially, any diaries or published reminiscences for that unit.

Next, expand the search to more general resources based on what information you have to date. If you find a spouse listed in the census, look for a marriage record. If there were children, look for their birth certificates. Always check the immigration and emigration records (ship lists) -- the person may have been born, lived and died in one state, but still took a trip to Europe that is evident in the records. If the person was not born in the USA, look for naturalization papers.

For each locality you can associate with the person, look for church records, newspapers, local or state censuses, local histories, business and partnership records, tax records, and similar resources. If you know when the person moved from one location to another, you can limit your search to a specific span -- but it is better to search outside that time-span as well. A person may move, and only sell property at the old location years later. Or close relatives may remain in the old locality and provide information relevant to the subject.

Finally, when as many primary and secondary resources as I have available have been searched in detail, I turn to the internet and use the search engines and image search engines to look for more information and examples of the photographer's work. Keywords are provided by all of the localities identified with that person, the photographer's name, any studio names and known associates, in various combinations. I don't feel bad that I didn't begin with this search if I find a complete biographical sketch at this stage -- the information I have independently accumulated can be compared to that biography to judge its accuracy, and to confirm (or throw into question) my own research.

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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