Reading a photograph
Who doesn’t like old photographs? When I explain my responsibilities as a librarian here at the Milstein Division of the New York Public Library people seem most fascinated by my work with photographic prints. Perhaps this is due in part to the sense of history images capture that can elude written descriptions. This Fall I will be teaching a class on dating family photographs. Inspiration for developing this class came as I encountered undated and often times completely unmarked photographic prints. In this blog entry we’ll go through some of the steps one can take to approximate a date for a photograph looking at the example below:
This particular photograph is dated and also gives the photographer’s name as well as the location, all of which will be helpful for fact checking. To start it is best to know what kind of photographic process was used to create the print. There are many different types of photographic processes, many of which were only used for short periods of time until technology changed or was improved. To determine what photographic process was used for this print I met with my colleague Erin Murphy, from the Conservation Division of the Library. After viewing the print under a microscope Erin’s diagnosis is that it is most likely a printed out gelatin silver print, due to its smooth surface, the absence of visible paper fibers and its warm hue. These kinds of prints were made from 1885-1920, giving us a date range which confirms the year written on the back of the image, 1900.
There are also other clues in the scene the photograph portrays. You’ll notice that the man and boy are standing in front of a shop with a sign that reads, M.A. Teaney Meat Market. It’s likely that the man is the proprietor of this business and is Mr. M. A. Teaney. Checking the 1900 census I found this record for a Mark Teaney, a butcher living in Monmouth, NJ, the county to which Highlands belongs. Also on the census record is his son, Mark Teaney Jr., who in 1900 is eleven years old.
If this topic interests you please join us in October at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building for the following classes: Clues from family photograph and Caring for family photographs. More information to follow!