Skip to content

By National Science and Media Museum on

Researching your photographer ancestors

One of the most exciting sources of information for family historians are collections of family photographs—lovingly preserved in leather-bound albums or stashed in biscuit tins or shoeboxes.

However, rather than being merely the subject of studio portraits, perhaps one of your ancestors was a portrait photographer. Here are some ideas about where you can look to find out more about your relatives who worked as professional photographers.

In March 1841, Richard Beard, a coal merchant, opened Europe’s first public photographic studio at the Polytechnic Institute in Regent Street, London. Beard employed a science lecturer, John Frederick Goddard, to actually take the portraits, thereby becoming the first professional photographer. During the early 1840s, other studios appeared in major cities such as Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester, but portrait photography was confined to the relatively wealthy—a daguerreotype portrait cost around one guinea, well beyond the means of most people. In 1851, the introduction of the wet collodion process and glass negatives heralded an explosion in commercial photography and a huge expansion in the number of studios. By the late 1860s, practically every town in Britain had at least one photographic studio and most had several.

Early professionals came to photography from a wide range of backgrounds. By no means all photographers were men. Photography was quickly identified as a suitable employment for women. By the 1890s, over 20% of professional photographers were women. In addition, of course, many photographers employed their wives or daughters as receptionists, colourists or dark room assistants. There were studios to suit every purse—from chic West End establishments catering for the gentry to humble family-run establishments in the side streets of provincial towns. In the 1890s, a single portrait at the most fashionable London studios could cost as much as 3 guineas while the cheapest studios supplied cartes de visite at 2s 6d a dozen.

Do Your Basic Research

Pull together everything that you know about your ancestor and their business. Speak to other members of the family to find out what they can remember and whether they have any documents that might be useful: photographs of the premises, headed paper, letters or newspaper cuttings, and, of course, photographs taken by the studio. There is often a wealth of useful information printed on the back of the cards on which studio portraits were mounted.

Check Census Returns

The British decennial census gives an accurate assessment of the number of professional photographers in Victorian Britain. The 1881 England census lists 4,722 results for ‘photographer’. It is important to remember that early photographers were sometimes listed under different occupational headings. In the 1851 census, for example, you will find records for ‘Daguerreotype Artists’ (from their use of the daguerreotype process). Also, not everyone who worked in a photographic studio was a photographer. You should also consider occupations such as ‘retoucher’ (the person who worked to ‘improve’ glass negatives) or ‘colourist’ (the person, usually a woman, who hand-coloured photographs).

For England and Wales, you can access census records at the National Archives in Kew and online at various commercial websites. Regional census returns may be found at your local reference library.

For Scotland and Ireland, see the General Register Office in Edinburgh (also available online, for a fee) and the National Archives of Ireland.

Look at Trade Directories

Trade directories may list your ancestor along with his or her selected trade. Most commonly produced annually (and therefore able to give you a much fuller picture than the census), these directories often list tradesmen under the heading of their occupation, and also often include street directories, which will help you to establish the length of time that your ancestor spent in one place. The best place to find trade directories is in the relevant local studies library or county archive. The Guildhall Library in London also houses an impressive collection of directories from all over the country.

The Historical Group of the Royal Photographic Society has published a number of directories listing photographers working in several different towns and cities in the nineteenth century. Some of these listings are also available online at Early Photographers; there are also sites devoted to photographers working in particular counties or cities, such as Sussex, Brighton and the Isle of Man. Directories of photographers working in London and Lancashire, compiled from information in trade directories, have been published in book form: Michael Pritchard, A Directory of London Photographers 1841–1908, PhotoResearch, 1994, and Gillian Jones, Lancashire Professional Photographers 1840–1940, PhotoResearch, 2004.

If you have managed to discover a business address from examining census returns and trade directories it might be fun to see what has happened to the premises. You may find that the building has long since disappeared and is now a car park. You may find, however, that the shopfront is still intact. If you are very lucky, there might even be some clue as to its original use—‘daylight’ photographic studios often had glazed extensions on the top floor.

Other Possible Sources of Information

Your photographer ancestor might have been a member of a group or society. The Royal Photographic Society, for example, has membership lists dating back to its formation in the 1850s. Information about the numerous local photographic clubs and societies that mushroomed after the 1880s might be held in local studies libraries.

Histories of the local area may mention the business and local newspapers may well contain relevant articles and advertisements and even an obituary if they were a well-known local figure. It is also worth browsing the pages of specialist magazines such as the British Journal of Photography which regularly published interviews with prominent members of the photographic community. Trade magazines such as the Kodak Trade Circular are another valuable source of information. Local libraries will hold copies or microfilms of local newspapers and larger central libraries may hold copies of the major photographic magazines. There is also, of course, the British Library Newspaper archive at Colindale, North London.

Do Some Background Research

Discover more about the history of portrait photography by reading some general histories such as Audrey Linkman’s The Victorians: Photographic Portraits (I.B. Tauris, 1993) and John Hannavy’s The Victorian Professional Photographer (Shire Publications, 1980). Contemporary publications give a fascinating glimpse of the practicalities of running a photographic studio. Try and get hold of copies of H.P. Robinson’s The Studio and what to do in it (1885) and Thomas Bolas’ The photographic studio: A guide to its construction, design, and the selection of a locality (1895). The British Journal Photographic Almanac, published annually from 1860 onwards, is a mine of information on the tools of the photographer’s trade—from cameras to darkroom fittings, painted backdrops and studio furniture.

To find out more about the history of photography, why not visit the museum? Find out about research at the museum in the Researchers section of our website.


More in the series

One comment on “Researching your photographer ancestors

  1. I am researching into the life of Owen Richard Morris who came from Cemaes Bay north Anglesey, who may have been trained in Liverpool. Any information gratefully received.
    Thank you

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *