Getting Started

The mission of City Gallery is to encourage people to preserve and interpret 'vernacular images' or photographs. What are vernacular images? They are the photographs of family, life, work, culture and places of ordinary people.

The family historian can play a vital role in the preservation and interpretation of vernacular images. They have the opportunity to play a role similar to the one the played by amateur astronomers in astronomy.

How can you help?

  • By preserving photographs "in situ" in the home, the family, outside of the academic and institutional world.
  • Documenting and interpreting the photographs in your family and locality. Sharing what you learn with others.
  • By volunteering or making contributions to institutions, such as major photographic archives or your local history and genealogy societies, library local history collections, etc.

How can I get started documenting and interpreting my family photographs?

Start by making an inventory of your photographs. Be sure to keep photographs from one family or source separate from others. Write down a description of each photograph. Scan your photographs into digital form to bring into a digital album. Find good album software that allows you to associate data with each photo and search the collection (Adobe Photoshop Elements 3.0 has these features).

The first rule of preserving your photographs is to do no harm. Avoid any rash action. Typically, old photographs have survived for fifty to a hundred years. It would be a mistake to bring those old photographs out the darkness of an album, hang them on the wall in bright sunlight and have them fade in a few months. Evaluate the kind of images you have carefully, how they have been stored. Read up on preservation, talk to an expert before taking any action.

Once you have decided to do something to preserve your photographs, learn about what archival storage and presentation supplies are available. Read up on the suppliers and their catalogs, then you can make an informed decision about a preservation plan. You may wish to contact an expert who creates a preservation plan for you and can order the right materials and assemble them into a storage solution. An expert can also help organize your collection and record vital details about the photographs.

Eventually, you will want to discover who the people in your old photographs may be. The first step is to show the photograph to the oldest people in your family or neighborhood to see if that prompts any memories. Write down what you learn (or better yet, take along a video camera). Then ask others in your family. Share the photos with your family to see if they haven any photos too.

Can photographer records help identity a person in my picture?

The short answer is that it is unlikely you will be able match your negative number up with a treasure trove of old studio ledgers. However, the effort can be very worthwhile. You may find out more about your family in the area the photograph was made, or be lucky enough to discover an old ledger is available. The first step is to contact a public library in the location where your photograph was made, or the central library for the county where the town or city resides. Use the studio location in the imprint if one exists. Often the reference librarian can look up a photographer or studio in old city directories or telephone books. City Directories were popular from just after the civil war to the introduction of the telephone. After the 1870s, you will find telephone directories predominate over city directories. Usually, there will be an advertisement for the gallery or at least a telephone listing along with an address. Don't forget to check for both home and work phone numbers. Although many old photographs raise hopes with phrases like "the negative of this photograph is preserved for future orders" stamped on the card, it's unlikely that a nineteenth or early twentieth-century studio is still in existence. Moreover, most studio ledgers or records will be unavailable. There are rare exceptions of ledgers or negatives being found in studio basements or in national or museum archives. It's more likely that a twentieth-century studio may have a modern successor.

Can a commercial looking photograph be a family photograph?

Not all old portraits are family photographs. Many images of public figures were published and collected by Victorians. It was a common practice for stage performers to have cabinet cards made and distributed to admirers or the public. On the other hand, images that may appear commercial may in reality be family photographs. Stereo photographers and postcard makers often produced images of family, local citizens and tourists as keepsakes. Don't assume that an old stereoview or postcard was just bought in a store.

Where do I find biographical details?

Once you've identified an individual in a photograph, you will want to look for some biographical details.

If they were in the military, you may find muster rolls or other records relating to their military service. The U. S. Federal Government has records of military service.

Look in the newspapers at the time and in the locality where they lived and were active in their work. Old newspapers can be obtained on microfilm, one the web and at local libraries.

Contact a public library in the area where they lived and worked, ask the reference librarian to search newspapers for articles and advertisements mentioning the individual. Have them check any City or State directories (for 1860s-1870s) and telephone directories (starting in 1870s).

Where can I ask questions and get advice from others?

Join our GenPhoto discussion group.