How to Find Historical Photos of New York City

By Carmen Nigro, Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building
July 30, 2014
Stephen A. Schwarzman Building

Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street; a.k.a. New York Public Library


Researchers commonly seek photographs of places in New York as they once existed in history. and WhatWasThere.Com have done admirable work in placing historic photos in their geographic context, however they represent but a fraction of available photos, and associated descriptive metadata can vary in accuracy and precision.

In the Milstein Division, our researchers frequently search for a residence or business belonging to an ancestor, the site of an historic event as it appeared before or during that event, neighborhoods as they appeared before a major change, and street photography of people in their day-to-day historic context. This type of photo research varies vastly from a researcher approaching the Library for the Performing Arts for images to a person studying photography as a process or an art form. This guide is predominantly focused on research of historical photos of a geographic location within New York City.

Searching the NYPL Digital Collections:

Hell's Kitchen

Hell's Kitchen

The NYPL Digital Collections portal allows access to various image collections from a variety of library divisions. Searching these collections is best done by cross streets, since exact addresses are rarely included in the metadata. For example, to search for images of the New York Public Library’s main Schwarzman building, one would search 42nd and Fifth. Numbered Streets are usually numeric while numbered Avenues are usually spelled out, one of NYC’s many nuances in place names.

Neighborhood names may not be included and may also have changed over time. At the time of this post, there was only one result for “Hell's Kitchen”, but many photos of the neighborhood could be found by searching for cross streets such as Ninth & 39th or Eighth & 35th. Because the digital collections contain images from across many disciplines, you will often see items such as maps, theater performances, and illustrations in the search results. The menu choices in the left column allow you to filter your search results.

Empire State Building

Empire State Building

In some cases, searching by landmark or building name will also yield results, but only if the name of the building was included in the metadata. For example, a search for “Empire State Building” delivers hundreds of images. A less well known building may not have its name included in the metadata: “Tenement Museum” yields no results, but its cross streets Orchard & Delancey yield dozens. is an alternative way of searching the NYPL's Photographic Views of New York City collection, presented in an easy to search map format. 

Searching Library Databases:

Historic photographs can also be found through the library’s databases. AP Multimedia Archive provides access to 700,000 photos, including a historic photo collection from the 1800s-1996. Use the advanced search option to locate photos by keyword, date range, location, and photographer, among other options. This database is accessible from outside the library with your New York Public Library card.

Photographs featured in newspapers can be searched through the Proquest Historical Newspapers database. Accessible on-site at all NYPL locations, this database contains newspapers which span from 1764-2009 and include major newspapers throughout New York and the United States.

Researching Non-Digitized Collections:

Old Village Hall, Staten Island

Old Village Hall, Staten Island

The Milstein Division’s visual collections include several collections which are not yet digitized. Some of the more popular collections include the New York postcards (some from Staten Island have been digitized), the Lloyd Acker Real Estate Photographs, NYC Real Estate Brochures, and Scrapbooks of New York City Views. These non-digitized collections must be accessed on site in the Milstein Division. You can contact us via email for more details.  

Books in the library’s catalog can also contain a wealth of images of places in New York. Some publishers such as Israelowitz and Arcadia have specialized in printing local histories that are extremely image-oriented. Search the catalog for neighborhood names, boroughs, or famous streets and buildings. You can also narrow results by using “pictorial works” as a search term eg: New York (N.Y.) -- History -- Pictorial works. Examples of items with an abundance of images: Kew Gardens, North Brother Island, Rockaway Beach.  Thousands of New York City photographs appearing in books can be located by using the New York City Illustrations File Card Index, which indexes images in books from the 1800s until the early 1990s.


McSorley's Ale House; photographed by Berenice Abbott 

New York City Guidebooks often have images of places such as hotels, museums, restaurants, and other places that would interest a visitor to the city. So, if you are searching for an image of a hotel from the 1950s, search guidebooks which were published in those years.

Older books, usually published before 1923, are often available via, Google Books, or Hathi Trust. The books are fully scanned and OCRed, so searching for a building or address will give results with text and images (if images were included in the original book).

Chatham Sq

Chatham Square Library; photographed by Lewis Hine

Sometimes, in order to track down a photo of a certain place in a certain era, you will need to know the name of a photographer that was known for his or her work in those circumstances.  Berenice Abbott, Lewis Hine, Percy Loomis Sperr, Jacob Riis, Edward Steichen, Walker Evans, Weegee, Garry Winogrand, Leonard Freed, Diane Arbus, and Alice Austen are among examples of people who photographed New York City profusely. Their photos may be easier to locate by searching for their names rather than by what is depicted in their works. Books such as Cityscapes: A History of New York in Images are useful for identifying famous New York photographers and the time periods in which they worked. Use the Photography Division’s Prints & Photographs Online Catalog to search for photographers by name in addition to the library’s regular catalog. The Wallach Division of Art, Prints, & Photographs can provide assistance in researching particular photographers. In fact, most divisions of the library and many branches, such as Manuscripts & Archives and the Mid-Manhattan Picture Collection have large non-digitized photo collections. You can find out more by contacting those divisions directly. 

Other Places to Look:

There are several institutions that are renowned for their photo archives and have rich collections of New York City images. In addition to the NYPL, you may want to reach out to the following organizations: