Q. I have a number of pictures of my family taken by foreign photographers. How can I date them?
A. Dating a photograph by establishing when the photographer was in business is an essential part of photo identification. This research can assign a time frame for the image and ultimately help you identify the individuals in the picture. You can find the photographer’s imprint in a number of places, depending on the type of image. It’s commonly found on the bottom edge of the photograph or on the back. Some photographers embossed the lower corner of an image with their name. Imprints usually include the photographer’s surname and city where he or she worked.
Foreign photographs add another wrinkle, of course. When researching foreign photographers you may need a language dictionary to help you decipher any printing or writing on the image. The town name will also need translating: For instance, Copenhagen can appear as Kjobenhavn in the imprint. Finding the locality in an atlas or gazetteer can uncover the country in which the photographer worked. Just keep in mind that many place names changed or disappeared during political upheavals.
You can attempt to research the photographer by using as much of the name as appeared on the image. Peter Palmquist’s Photographers: A Sourcebook for Historical Research (Carl Mautz Publishing) contains a bibliography of directories of photographers from all over the world.
You can also use city directories and census records if they’re available for the location you’re researching. The WorldGenWeb project can help you become familiar with the availability of those resources for a particular country. FamilySearch publishes a series of online guides to conducting country-specific research.
If your initial attempts to locate the photographer fail, try using an online search engine such as Google. For example, a search for photographer Johannes Peterson of Copenhagen yielded leads using several of the above searching tools.
Researching the photographer is only one of the ways to date a photograph. Costume clues, genealogical research, and photographic methods can also help. For more photo-identification techniques, see the Photo Detective blog.