Sourcing Info on 19th & Early 20th Century Photographers

Do you have any early photographs – cartes de visite, cabinet cards, etc. – with identifying photographer information on them? Have you ever tried to find further information about the photographer, such as dates they were in business? If so, you likely had some of the same experiences I’ve had. Sometimes a little information can be gleaned, but most of the time, little or nothing can be found online.

This is the first of a two-part post to give some tips, websites and general information that might bring you some success. A warning before we go any further – no,  “everything” is not online and, in this case, a lot more is available online telling one where to look next than there is of actual data. However, there are some good starting points.

First, early photographers often weren’t called “photographers” at all. They often were called artists and sometimes even described in terms of the types of photos they took. For example, someone who used the daguerrotype method of photography might be called a daguerrotypist. It makes sense, but if you were looking say, in a city directory with items in ABC order, you might not look in the D section for daguerrotypists. An ambrotypist took – yep – ambrotype photos.

Let’s begin with an example. I have an old photo in my collection with this marking on the back:

Back of Photo

The stamp on the back actually dates this photo to a very specific time period, but, for now, let’s pretend that it isn’t there and all we have is this back image. However, the photo is small and it is a carte-de-visite (CDV), most popular around the 1860’s onwards.

Photographers back then often had other occupations and didn’t work full time at this. They also often traveled from one place to another taking pictures, which increases the difficulty in finding more information about them.

What would I do first? Since I have a name and place and I know that this is a CDV, I would start with the 1860, 1870 & 1880 censuses of Calais, Maine, looking for more information.

In the 1860 census:

Nathaniel Wells Household, Calais, ME

There he is – Frederick A. Stoddard, 32 years old, born in Maine, ambrotypist. He wasn’t in Calais in 1870 or 1880, but he appears to be the man who was a blacksmith and a baker, living in Massachusetts towns. So much for any further information about him as a photographer.

Next, I tried a Google search for “Fred A. Stoddard photographer.” One hit came up for This is a very large database of early photographers and locations and of images taken by some of them. There are two issues, here, though. First, in order to see any information about the photographer and/or his work (other than his name is in the database), a fee is charged. Second, while there is a database of free domain photos, there are 2416 images that are currently unindexed and unsearchable. One needs to scroll through the entire list to find anything of interest.

The best thing about the free search for a name or photography business is that it might include alternate names, e.g. Fred A. Stoddard and F.A. Stoddard, both of Calais, ME are listed. It also might show other places where someone of the same name was taking photos. In my case, I found no more information about Fred.

At this point, I’ve confirmed that Fred A. Stoddard, 32, born Maine,  was living in Calais, working as an ambrotypist in 1860. That fits with the Civil War era CDV that I own. The ClassyArts database includes his name, both as Fred A. and F.A., but I don’t want to pay for any images as I don’t know what useful information I would gain.

If I was interested in finding out the years he was in business, I would next check city directories. The Library of Congress has some Calais directories, but only for 1896-1902 so that doesn’t help me. A Maine state site has one for 1935, but that won’t help either and neither of these sources is digitized anyway.

That might be all I will be able to find about ambrotypist Fred A. Stoddard’s work.

What if I had only a name, but no place noted or I had only a photographer’s mark? That would greatly complicate the search. Details will be coming tomorrow.


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