Portrait Photography

Researching Old Photo Studios to Identify 19th Century Photographs

There are a lot of things you can use as clues in identifying old photographs. Hairstyles, clothing styles, and the type of photograph it is are just a few of them. Knowing the photo studio that took the photo can be another big, important clue in identifying the people in a photograph. You may not think the photo studio or name of the photographer is important in photo identification, and in modern photography, it really isn’t, since most modern photos are taken by family members or friends with their own cameras. In the 19th century, however, going to a photo studio was the only way to get your photo taken, so knowing the studio that took the photo becomes an important clue in your search.

Many times, the back of an old photograph will have the name of the photographer or the name of the studio on the back of it. This was an important way of photographers advertising themselves. When people had their photographs taken in the 19th century, they would show them to their friends and family, and point out the name of the photographer on the back to recommend him. During and after the Civil War, when it became possible to make copies of photos, the distribution of photo copies to loved ones served as almost a business card for the photographer who took the photos.

Most photography studios in the 19th century operated independently, in one town, for a certain number of years. If you have an old 19th-century photograph with the name (and sometimes the address) of the photographer or photography studio on the back, you can research that photographer and/or studio. You will usually be able to find information on it online, or by calling the area’s local historical society, archives, or genealogy library.

When you get the location of the photography studio, you can do additional research to determine where the next closest studio was located. This will give you an idea of what towns likely used that particular studio. If you discover the dates the studio operated, it will tell you the time frame in which the photo had to be taken. Both of these clues will help you narrow down the possible identities of the person or people in the photo.

When you combine the information you received about the photography studio with the approximate ages, hairstyles, clothing styles, and photographic type, you will have a nice collection of clues that can allow you to identify the person or people in the photograph with a strong degree of reasonable certainty. If you know the branch of your family the photograph came from and where they lived, and discover the photograph was taken near where they lived, that is a strong clue. If it was taken far away, it could be photos of friends of your family members or distant relatives who moved away.

Knowing the photographer or photography studio is an important clue in identifying old photographs. Use it, and be amazed at what you discover in your family.

About the author

Will Moneymaker

Will has been creating photographs and exploring his surroundings through his lens since 2000. Follow along as he shares his thoughts and adventures in photography.