How to be a photograph detective

ROBIN VYRNWY-PRICE

Dating and identifying old family photographs is mainly a matter of using your brain in the same way in which you would work out a crossword puzzle or a jigsaw.

Just be organized, work to a system and persevere.

A cabinet portrait like this offers scope for some real detective work. It was taken in Australia so first you need to identify the ship, find out who was a sailor, when the ship was in Australia, from naval records, and then pin down the most likely family member. THis picture was in an album bought in a sale in Norfolk and containing a number of pictures by Norfolk photographers.

You should also be able to look at all the possibilities offered by the clues in the picture, pose, hair, costume, thickness of card, photographer’s imprint, and then think ‘outside the box’ in case there is a possibility you had not thought of.

You can also make reasonable assumptions but there must be some evidence to base it on.

Consider your family, work out possible links and hypotheses — ask the questions and try and work out the answers.

One important factor is to consider which pictures go together.
If they are all from the same old album (as the ones used in this feature are) then you can assume they belong together as a family.

Group them by photographer and then by facial similarities. A photographer can be a clue to where they live — but it might be a holiday visit or a trip to see friends.

Sometimes the same person might be photographed by photographers from different places and this could be to do with a marriage and setting up a new home.

Often your detective work will lead you back to the genealogical data you began with, but will have produced new facts that will either back up your conclusions or give you another direction to work in.

The 1860s saw photography really take off and Desideri’s French patent in 1854 of the carte-de-visite revolutionized portrait photography.

From 1859, when it became commercially available, photo portraiture took off and even the working classes could afford a trip to the photographer.
For just a few pence (although still a lot to a working man) you could have a number of copies of a photo to send to relatives and friends.

From the mid 1860s the larger cabinet-sized photos became available, but these did not really take off until the 1880s as the cdv faded from the scene.

The main points about cdv photos from the 1860s are:
- they have thin, poor quality card as mounts, with square corners;
- the picture was generally hand cut and poorly aligned with the card;
- details on the back were minimal, sometimes nothing at all or at most a photographer’s stamp and/or signature.

The soft vignette was popular in the mid to late 1860s.
Hard vignettes were also produced, but mostly there was no masking at all.
Often the surface of the emulsion will be badly foxed by bacterial action, rust or fading; the poses were stiff and formal, and at first taken in an ordinary room which had been adapted to studio purposes.

Often the early photographs just have a plain wall as backdrop or possibly drapes to one side.

The more elaborate painted backdrops and rustic props of the 1870s and 1880s — such as stiles and trees and benches — are not there yet.
The subject is either seated, usually at a small deal table, or standing next to a plinth.

Sometimes they will be shown holding a book in a suggestion of intelligence or noble character — it has been known for the book to be upside down.

Otherwise they might be given some prop, perhaps related to a vocation.
Many of the pictures from this period will also be full face this is because because the photo took so long to take that mechanical devices had to be placed behind the subject to keep their head perfectly still. The easiest way to hide these was to have the subject face the camera.

The first thing to remember when you look at a photograph is that all the clues may lead to nothing if the picture is a reprint.

You could be looking at an 1860s photograph on an 1880s mount — which would be a real mix-up. Clues to dates given by the mount-card might only apply to the card, not the photograph.

In general, though, most photographs are contemporary with their mounts.
These mount-cards nearly doubled in thickness between the 1860s and 1890s.

Sometimes cards were cut to make them fit a frame...

From the 1880s bevelled edges came into fashion, often gold or silver, and this metallic colouring was applied the initials on the front of the mount by the 1890s and early 1900s. Cream was popular throughout the period from the earliest photographs and certainly in the 12860s and 1870s the mounts would, in the main, be pale in colour.

Later colours got stronger and moved on to deep reds and maroons and greens as the photographer’s imprint itself become more and more embellished.

The back of the mount soon came to be used for advertising purposes and although few records of photographic studios survive, but you might be able to discover information in trade directories such as Kellies or the White’s of the relevant town, which are not always accurate or comprehensive, but still useful.

...but another picture would give the full address details.

The larger firms that had studios in a number of sites can give dating clues by the actual address details if matched with date of purchase.
There are also different terms for photographic methods and styles which went in and out of fashion and offer dating clues.

Album Portraits were prevalent as a style in the 1860s.
Some backs also show medals (the more of them the smaller they are) these can give clues by their dates but really only as an earliest possible.

Sometimes cards mention a “New Instantaneous Process” which is a reference to the faster gelatine negatives which were common around .
These reduced exposures from seconds to fractions of seconds.

A few final tips as to the type of photograph you might have:

Is it made of paper and cardboard? Then it can be:
A carte-de-visite
A cabinet card
A photo postcard
A non standard studio portrait.
An amateur photograph.

Is it metal? Then it might be:
A tin-type or ferrotype
A daguerreotype in a case

Is the photograph on glass? Then it might be:
An Ambrotype in a case
A glass-plate negative

Are the photographs in some form of album? If so is it a:
19th century Bible type, with leather or cloth covers and thick gold-edged pages with cut-outs or a 20th century book type with coloured pages with photos stuck in, or with photo corners.

There may also be references to lighting such as the Luxograph (1878 to about 1886), electric light (1877 on ), gas light (1879 on) and magnesium flash (about 1886 onwards).

There were also patented processes which were often short-lived novelties but can offer a rough date if advertised: such as the Sarony Photocrayon (1869), the Ferranti-Turner Patent (1873) and the Mezzotint Vignette (1876 ).

If there are traces of tissue paper on the back of the card, or if the original tissue is fully attached, which folded over the photograph for protection, then the card is probably from the 1880s or 90s.

You will also find Japanese or Oriental designs on the back of many mount cards at this time. This was part of a general Oriental trend.

If there is any handwritten detail on the back of the card this could be useful but can till be unreliable — after all it may well have been written at a later date by a grown-up child after a parent’s death.

A date written on the back may refer to the date it was given not the date it was taken.

Clothing can offer many clues but remember to check the age of the sitter before making an assumption.

Remember some people kept the same clothes for decades as a matter of economy, and older people definitely preferred to stick to tried and trusted styles.

A rural sitter might also be well behind London fashions although in Norwich, for instance, they might keep up with the fashion.

The best you can hope for is to identify the first appearance of certain clothes on the fashion scene. Male dress is difficult to date because it did not change much and the clothing of sitters in head-and-shoulders portraits is barely visible.

Backdrops, especially painted ones as opposed to plain backcloths, were also ‘in’ at certain times.

The late 1890s saw the rise in popularity of ladies’ bicycles, so studios would keep one as a prop to save clients having to wheel them down to the shop (some may not even have owned one but to use it in a picture gave a sense of style.

Boys in sailor suits might have mastheads in the backgrounds and young women were often photographed on swings in the early 1880s.

The poses adopted by the sitters derived from painting conventions. Unsmiling and solemn people were aiming to give the impression of being serious, dependable and honest normally they might not have looked so grim and humourless people in everyday life.

Also consider a sense of occasion as Victorians went to the photographer to mark the most important events in a family — birth, rites of passage, marriage and death.

Portraits were also taken of men who had joined the services, of families before they emigrated, of sportsmen and women who had won championships.

All sorts of momentous events were recorded by the camera for people to keep for posterity.

This was a time when the major events were recorded in the family Bible — and once photographs came in they too were part of the process.
You couldn’t stick pictures in the Bible so they did the next best thing and created leather-bound volumes to hold their pictures and if put side by side it could sometimes be hard to tell the Bible from the photograph album
The photograph of a single woman, in a smart dress (bearing in mind that even into Edwardian times many women got married in a best dress not a specially made one) with an openly displayed ring or rings on her fingers, could be a marriage or engagement portrait.

A young couple standing together might be brother and sister or an engaged/married couple. The important thing to look for is the ring, or a flower in the man’s buttonhole.

Another variation is the matched portrait that would have been placed on facing pages in the photograph album. These were often taken to mark an engagement, a wedding or, with older couples, an anniversary.

Another anniversary pose might show the couple with their family around them. Remember that only family members touched and a young man standing next to a daughter of the house in such a picture, but without touching her, could be her future husband not a present one — yet another good way to pinpoint a date for a picture.

Then we come to memorial cards and people in mourning dress such as a sash or armband. This did not necessarily mean a death in the family as sometimes a Royal death might be marked by such mourning especially if the photo had been planned well in advance.

Some photographs, however, when you take style of dress and other factors into account, may appear to date from one decade, but the mount-card may date from another.

The may be reprints made as a memorial to the person portrayed and would then be circulated amongst the family.

You might find they are edged with a black border and if the reprint was taken from an existing print rather than a negative then the print will show lack of definition.

Mourning dress in photographs stands out; black crepe bands and ribbons were added to dresses and black armbands were worn by men.
Even post-mortem photographs might be taken of the dead person, especially children who would be laid out fully dressed as if sleeping.
These were meant to comfort the bereaved relatives.

Finally we come to children and you must remember that in Victorian times commercial photography rarely featured naked babies on bearskin rugs.
They tended to show small children fully dressed until the at least the 1890s. After that bare feet and simple shifts began to appear. Babies at christenings tended to be in long robes.

Boys wore dresses and had long hair in the early part of their childhood, so what you might think is a cute little girl with curling ringlets might easily be a photograph of her brother.

When a boy was “breeched”, or put in short trousers for the first time, this event was frequently recorded in the studio

In the early days of photography photographers would just use basic card to put the picture on and then write or stamp their details on the back but as the cards began to be seen as an advertising medium they soon needed to be done by a professional printer.
On the back of later cards (and sometimes on the front) you may find some tiny printed writing, this was the printer of the card and who supplied the stock to the photographer.
Sometimes they can be put into a date category, athough these can only be a guideline and you should use other details, they could put you in the right time period , especially if you match it with a photographer’s date.

From a reasonably wide collection of carte de visites, from a wide area it is possible to work out approximate dates for printers, including:
England Bros. London (1885)
B.P.Grimaud, Paris. (1890s)
Samuel Fry & Co (Manuf in Berlin) London. (1890s)
Herrmann & Co., Berlin.
(1884 - 1892)
D Hutinet, Paris. (c.1888)
K Krziwanek, Vienna. (c.1885)
A L Berlin [c.1900]
Oborne (1876 - 1887)
REG G.E.& C (1887 -1895)
Riddle & Couchman, 49 Watling Street, E.C. (c.1870)
Trapp & Münch, Berlin
(1879 - 1895)
Bernhard Wachtl, Wien. (c1894)

A major name in the business was the Printer Marion Imp, Paris & London.

In 1863-4 A.Marion & Co. Soho published cartes for Southwell Brothers of Baker Street W. London, and in 1866 produced cartes wholesale for Mayall of Regent Street)

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