Know the Rogue's Gallery

By The History Detectives Team
16 July 2009
Category: DIY Investigations

At History Detectives we are often asked to examine photographs to determine their age, origin, subject, content or authenticity. Historical photos can provide a wonderful glimpse into the past, but in order to draw the right conclusion you need to pay attention to the smallest details.

This week Elyse Luray investigated whether a contributor’s photograph was in actually the only image of the Native American legend Crazy Horse. By examining the photograph Elyse was able to find out who the photographer was and with further research she managed to ascertain who the figure in the photograph.

What steps should you take when examining photographs you think have historical significance?

Your first step should be trying to figure out how old your picture is. There are three distinct eras you should consider:

  1. Daguerreotype 1839-1860: Often tarnished around the edges, a Daguerreotype can be identified by placing a piece of writing paper in front of the surface. An authentic Daguerreotype will reflect the paper in reverse.You can use Craig’s Daguerrian Registry which has lists of many American photographers from 1850-1860 to investigate Daguerrian photographs.

  2. Ambrotype 1854-1865: If you remove an Ambrotype from it’s case and hold it up to the light, you should be able to see through it, as it was printed on glass. Often, black paint on the back of the photo has begun to peel or crack.

  3. Tintype 1856-1920: Hold a magnet in front of your photograph to quickly find out if it is a Tintype. If the magnet is attracted to the photograph then it is a Tintype.

There are a few questions that can help you examine your photographs:

  • Is it a portrait, a candid, an artistic statement, or perhaps an advertisement?
  • Where did you find this photo?
  • Is there anyone you recognize in it?
  • What other people and objects are shown?
  • What is the physical setting?
  • Are there any clues to let you know when and where this photo was taken?

Make sure that your photograph is not in fact an accomplished drawing or print. You can do this by checking that there are no tiny printed dots when viewing the image under a magnifying glass. You should also examine your image for any marks or stamps that may shed light on who the photographer was or the subject of the image.

In last week’s DIY post we looked at finding experts and the important role they can play. If you are having trouble examining your photograph it may be wise to consult an expert who can point you in the right direction. Elyse drew upon expert opinion when she investigated the Crazy Horse photo to narrow down the facts to make her conclusion.

Remember, to keep your photograph out of direct sunlight and extreme hot or cold conditions.

Have you examined any interesting or historical photographs? Do you have any tips? We would like to know. Let us know in the form below.


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