Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A Lack of Provenance

Brady, the photographer, returned from Bull Run
One of the many disturbing issues accompanying the proliferation of online family trees is the association of millions of photographic images with the files. Not only do the vast majority of the family trees lack any source information, the associated photographs, although claiming identification of the individuals shown, lack any sort of provenance information.

Perhaps the concept of provenance is new to you. Provenance is defined as the place of origin or earliest know history of a historical artifact. This includes photos. I am particularly sensitive to this issue because I was involved, as an attorney, in a significant lawsuit concerning the provenance of an old photograph and a claim of copyright. In copyright cases, proving the provenance of a document or photograph is particularly important. More recently, my daughter and I got involved in a question of the provenance of particular photograph claiming to be of my Great-great-greatgrandfather, John Tanner. Here is a link to the long discussion and analysis that led us to the conclusion that the photo could not have been made during John Tanner's lifetime and therefore could not be him. Here is a copy of the daguerreotype in question:

Establishing when and how the daguerreotype could have been taken was a fundamental issue in the determination of the identity of the people shown.

All three of the huge online family tree hosts,, Family Tree and encourage their users to upload family photographs. The number of photos on just these three websites number in the millions. It is extremely rare that any of the photos have even a modicum of information about the subjects of the photos much less information about when and where the photo may have been taken. This huge pile of photos is an archivist's nightmare. For example, even though through careful analysis my daughter and I concluded that none of the people in the above photo are John Tanner, there are likely hundreds of copies of this photo out there on the Web claiming that the person on the left is John Tanner. So there are likely hundreds of people, perhaps thousands that now venerate this daguerreotype as a priceless artifact. Well, it is for the descendants of the people shown, but there is little chance that the actual people in the photograph will ever be connected to the right ancestral line.

What use are a million photos without any provenance? How many are misidentified? How many are really duplicates of one another? How many are important photographs of other people either not identified or attributed to the wrong family?

As genealogists we have made some progress in getting sources added to some of our files. But it appears that we have already lost the war, even before it began, with online photos.

What information do we need about a photo? Here is an example of the information attached to an online photo from the Library of Congress concerning the photo of Matthew B. Brady:

Title: [Brady, the photographer, returned from Bull Run]
Date Created/Published: 1861 July 22.
Medium: 1 negative : glass, wet collodion.
Reproduction Number: LC-BH827701-550 (b&w film neg.)
Rights Advisory: No known restrictions on publication.
Call Number: LC-BH8277- 550 [P&P]
Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA
American Memory edition timeline. No. 1111
Title from Milhollen and Mugridge.
Forms part of Civil War glass negative collection (Library of Congress).
Brady, Mathew B.,--ca. 1823-1896.United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865.Format:
Glass negatives--1860-1870.Portrait photographs.Collections:
Civil War Glass Negatives and Related PrintsCivil WarPart of: Selected Civil War photographs, 1861-1865 (Library of Congress)
Bookmark This Record:
OK, so this is a lot of work. But absent at least some of the information, the photograph is an historical orphan without provenance. I realize that there is nothing I can do to stem the tide of uploading millions of more photographs, but imagine the plight of the future genealogists trying to disentangle this mess.  


  1. What a thought provoking column! Thank you for writing it.

    Now, my question to you would be - if you have no provenance on the photo aside from maybe a name on the back of it, how does one figure out how to attribute it to the right photographer and time period, etc? What steps could we take to figure out this information in the absence of it?

  2. Exactly. The complaint falls on def ears without a recommended solution. I have several hundred photos of family members and no one knows this type of information. But certain nonetheless about who is who.