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

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Posting old photos online -- what do we need to know?

I received a very good comment from a reader in response to my post about providing the provenance of a photo posted online. The comment was as follows:
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?
At the first level, recording the provenance of a photo or any other historical artifact or original document involves recording where, when and how you obtained the item. At this level, recording this information will allow you to stop and think about the conclusions you are drawing from the photo. If the people in the photo are identified by some incorporated writing, such as a note on the back or front of the photo, who wrote the note, if you know, and were the identifications made reliable?

It is true that you may not be able to determine exactly when a photographic image was produced, but the time period can be determined from the context of the image, including the clothing worn by those represented or the background. The type of photograph can also be a clue as to the time period it was made. Was the photo taken in a studio, if so, the name of the studio may appear on the photo and the time period that particular studio was in operation can be determined.

From another standpoint, the apparent ages of those in the photograph may tell when it was taken. There are a number of very good sources to help researchers in identifying old photographs. Here are a few to get started:

Taylor, Maureen Alice. Uncovering Your Ancestry Through Family Photographs. Cincinnati, Ohio: Betterway Books, 2000.

You might also be interested in Maureen's website and blog. Here are a few more resources:
It may also be helpful to understand the history of photography. Different processes for producing images were popular or even used during certain periods of time. Identifying how the original photo was produced can often date the photo within just a few years' timespan. Unfortunately, much of this information is lost when the photo is merely a digital online copy of a copy etc. If you find an interesting photo in an online family tree, you may wish to see if someone in the family has the original and can supply a better, more complete copy. 

Identifying the people in a photo is only part of the idea of the provenance. Provenance is a description of chain of ownership or custody from the time of creation. How did you come to own or possess this particular photo? Tell your story. That is provenance. The rest of the information may or may not be able to be reconstructed, but once the time period is determined and the location, it may be possible to closely date and attribute the photo. 


  1. James,
    Thanks for mentioning Stories To Tell. I enjoy reading Genealogy's Star and was surprised to see us pop up here. Best wishes!

  2. Thank you for your work! I really appreciate it