Photo Detective: Photos Taken Abroad

By Maureen A. Taylor Premium

Finding a family photograph taken abroad can be just as important as locating a passenger list. One image can link you to your family’s homeland, lead you to new genealogical information and establish a time frame for your ancestors’ immigration. To make these discoveries, follow basic photo-identification steps: Determine when the photographer was in business, research costume clues and compare your photograph to other images. Here are a few print and online resources to guide your quest for family knowledge.

Marks of artistry
Rejoice if the photographer’s name and address (known as the photographer’s imprint) are stamped on your picture. Using this information, you can determine when the photographer was in business and when the image might have been taken. Many cities and towns outside of the United States maintained city directories or trade directories, which might list the photographer. To find these directories, look under the City Directories heading at Cyndi’s List, or visit WorldGenWeb and browse the materials available for your ancestral country.

You can find compiled lists of photographers in the Telnet database at the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film. Or consult the Index of UK Photographers up to 1950 or Finding Photographers. Look for printed lists in Photographers: A Sourcebook for Historical Research edited by Peter E. Palmquist (Carl Mautz Publishing), which includes “Directories of Photographers: An Annotated World Bibliography” by Richard Rudisil.

You also can use the databases at genealogy Web sites such as and (for Irish-specific sources) to research the photographer. Just use the same search techniques you’d use to find information about your ancestors.

Costume clues
In more recent years, fashion has transcended geography. That is, what was stylish in the United States at the turn of the 20th century probably was stylish in England at the same time. When clothing doesn’t reflect the “current” style, pay particular attention to accessories such as shoes and jewelry. If you think the person is wearing ethnic dress, consult books such as Folk Costumes of the World by Robert Harrold and Phyllida Legg (Sterling Publishing Co.), or research dress at Web sites such as Regional Costumes of Italy or Tartans of Scotland. For additional resources, look under the Clothing & Costume heading at Cyndi’s List.

Pictures for comparison
If your picture lacks a photographer’s imprint or the costume clues are ambiguous, you can date the image by comparing it to other pictures. You probably know something about your ethnic origins, so start with books that profile those groups in pictures. Try Oxford University Press’s American Family Albums series, 10 children’s books each covering a different ethnic group and containing numerous illustrations for comparison.

Look at publications and Web sites generated by historical societies in areas where your ethnic group settled. The State Historical Society of Wisconsin, for example, published a series of short booklets, complete with illustrations, on the various ethnic groups represented in its collection. Many other historical societies and libraries also are working to digitize their image collections, so you can view them from your home. The largest digital database of pictures is the American Memory Project at the Library of Congress.

Foreign photo mysteries are a little more challenging because the resources may be unfamiliar—but they’re worth the extra effort. An immigrant photograph visually connects you to your heritage. A single image can lead you to immigration documents and help you find family that stayed behind.