Click to search the Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library Skip Navigation

How To Find Photographs and Images in the Library and Beyond


Cornell Capa, photographer and founder of the International Center of Photography, once described photography as “the most vital, effective and universal means of communication of facts and ideas.” That may be one reason why Ask NYPL, the telephone reference service of The New York Public Library, receives so many requests for assistance on how to locate a specific photograph or image. This may seem to be a daunting task—but there are several relatively simple and effective ways to locate an image with great speed and accuracy. A good place to start is with the resources of the NYPL and there are also a number of other non-profit and for profit resources that can enable one to locate royalty free photographs and images as well as museum quality fine art and iconic ones.

Images at NYPL

Digital Collections

Allie Mae Burroughs, wife of cotton sharecropper. Hale County, Alabama. Image ID: 5164585

You may want to first check the over 800,000 images (a number of which are photographs) in the Digital Collections of the NYPL. An excellent way to search the Digital Collections is either by starting at the search box on the home page or in the upper right hand corner of all other pages. The search results appear on the right and a set of faceting tools on the left then help you to filter to narrow your search by, e.g., Name, Date Range or Genre. One can also use the faceting tool for “Genre” to limit one’s results to: photographs, prints or postcards. And one can also limit results to those with “no known US copyright restrictions” (a concept that bears certain similarities to that of “in the public domain”)

NYPL Digital Collections Platform: An Introduction is an excellent tool for both learning about this Collection and how to browse in it. Every item in the Digital Collection belongs to a parent Division within the NYPL that is responsible for curating the physical materials that are reflected in the Digital Collections. Within the Division an item must belong to a top-level Collection (and there may be additional levels of hierarchy below that) and one can also search or browse the individually digitized Items.

It is quite easy to browse by Division. On each Division’s page (e.g., The Billy Rose Theatre Division) you’ll find a brief description of that Division, a lane of recently digitized Items, Collections of digitized material from within that Division and its contact information.

You can also browse by Collection that is the highest level of arrangement of materials across all the Divisions. If you’re interested in locating a specific item you can filter by Collection title using the filter box at the top of that page. There are also navigational tools that enable you to locate materials within any sub-category of a Collection. Anytime you see a “+” next to an element in this “browse” view that means that there’s at least one other level of hierarchy to explore. Simply click the container with the “+” in the title and more options will expand beneath it. The image set on the right will then automatically filter to show you just those images within that level of hierarchy selected. On the left side of the page if a Collection has a hierarchical element you can also browse them via the “Navigation” tab. And all Collections (and the search results) have a “Filters” tab that enables you to further narrow the results by “Genre” and “no known U.S. copyright restrictions.”

On Photography

The Photography Collection

The Photography Collection collects a broad range of images in the photographic medium, including images made for commercial, industrial, and scientific applications as well as many museum quality fine art photographs. The collection includes examples of almost every photographic process from the daguerreotype to the most recent digital images. The Collection’s strengths include works from the earliest years of photography, American photography from the 1930s and 1940s, limited edition portfolios and works by New York photographers working in the 1970s and 1980s.

The primary means of searching this Collection is the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog via the photographer’s name (e.g., Abbot, Berenice) but you may also search by title, photographic process and time period.

One can also search a subset of the holdings of the Photography Collection using subject terms one image at a time (“Item level” searching) within the Digital Collections that enables one to view certain images from the Photography Collection. Of course, one can also use Advanced Search in the Classic Catalog to search for photographs with a wide variety of descriptive restrictions. Of course, a number of the other research divisions of the NYPL also hold collections of photographs and images.

Be sure to visit the exhibition, Public Eye: 175 Years of Sharing Photography at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, open through January 2016.

The Picture Collection

The Picture Collection located on the third floor of the Mid-Manhattan Library of the NYPL contains over one million original photographs, prints, postcards, posters and illustrations primarily from books, magazines and newspapers and categorized by subject for both reference and circulating use. The Picture Collection has been an unparalleled resource for artists, designers and researchers since 1915.

Searching for Royalty-Free Images Beyond NYPL

Outside NYPL there are many ways to search for images on the internet that are royalty free and often cost free:

Google Images

Google Images - Advanced Search has an option (“Usage Rights”) to limit the search in its vast trove of images to those that are royalty free.

Creative Commmons on Flickr

Flickr/Creative Commons allows one to search or browse for photographs and images. In general, you are permitted to reproduce the image provided that you provide attribution and it is for a non-commercial use. Note the several tools to enhance your Flickr search including Wylio that searches Flickr only for creative commons content; Flickrstorm that retrieves more images than your search terms specify by using related tags and that its “advanced” limit can restrict images to those from creative commons and Behold that uses a form of computer vision to recognize visual content rather than relying on text tags and can limit to images "free to use" or "free to modify.”

Internet Archive Book Images on Flickr

Flickr/Internet Archive Book Images contains almost three million images reproduced from books - many of which are royalty free.

Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons holds over 25 million “freely usable” photographs and other media files.

SJSU World Images

The World Images database of 100,000 photographs and images of California State University is especially attuned to the needs of students and educators as it allows searching by subject (e.g., the Continents, Photosynthesis, Dance in India or the Bill of Rights). The database states that: “you are free to use these images for non-profit educational purposes, but we ask that you give credit to the copyright holders who retain rights to the images [under a Creative Commons license.]”

everystockphoto permits you to search “cost-free” photographs from a large number of sources including photographs from Flickr, Wikimedia Commons and many other sources of stock photos. Advanced search allows you to search only those sites that you specify.

Free Stock Images

Some other sources of free stock images include: morgueFile, StockPholio, stockvault, Pixabay and There are also many providers of relatively low cost stock photographs.

Digital Archives of Images

A number of archives of digital images [not all rights free] including those of the New York City Municipal Archives, the National Park Service and europeanaPhotography  among others are discussed in this excellent blog post.

Museum Quality and Iconic Images Beyond NYPL

There are a number of excellent sources of museum quality art and iconic photographs and images from non-profit sources. However, the fact that an image is available from a non-profit source does not necessarily mean that is free of either royalties or costs:

Museum of Modern Art and Metropolitan Museum

The Photography Collection of the Museum of Modern Art holds about 25,000 images (especially 20th Century art photography).The Photographs Collection of the Metropolitan Museum also holds about 25,000 images and is particularly strong in 19th Century American and French photographs. In 2014, the Met announced that more than 400,000 high-resolution images of public domain art works may be downloaded directly from its website for non-commercial use.

International Center of Photography

The International Center of Photography (“ICP”) has a permanent collection of over 100,000 photographs including daguerrotypes, gelatin silver and digital chromogenic prints. The ICP’s strength is in American and European social documentary photography from the 1930s to the 1990s. It is scheduled to re-open in lower Manhattan in the fall of 2015.

George Eastman House

The George Eastman House (Rochester, NY) holds a permanent collection comprising more than 400,000 photographs and negatives dating from the invention of photography. More than 14,000 photographers are represented including virtually all the major figures in the history of the medium. To make use of digital images in their online collection you must obtain permission from any rights holder.

Stock Images

However, no discussion of how to obtain photographs and images would be complete without noting the holdings of Corbis Images, Getty Images and Shutterstock. Corbis Images licenses the rights to over 100 million photographs and images including some of the most iconic ones: Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat, Albert Einstein sticking his tongue out and Marilyn Monroe standing in a short dress over that drafty subway grate. Getty Images also holds over 80 million stock images. Both Corbis and Getty allow clients to search and browse for images, purchase usage rights and download images including royalty free images. Costs of the images vary with the image, the type of rights associated with it and its resolution. Note that Getty Images now allows users to embed photos onto their blogs and websites free of charge provided that its brand is visible. And Corbis offer a collection of “web and mobile resolution images” at relatively modest prices.

Reverse Image Search

Search by Image is a facet of Google Images that is an interesting way to “reverse search” a photograph (or other image) to locate related images from around the web, to search for websites that discuss the image or sites that include the same picture. It enables you to upload an image from your computer; to drag and drop an image into the search box [if using Chrome or Firefox]; or to search for an image found on a website. Note that this form of searching is best for images of landmarks or public figures rather than family members and that you must also ascertain if any rights holder exists. A very good way to do this is through imagewiki that is a free online directory of rights holders and ownership information for photographs and images.

Tineye is a reverse search engine that has certain differences from Search by Image. It finds out where an image came from, how it is being used, if modified versions of the image exist or if there is a higher resolution version. It does not typically find similar images (e.g., a different image with the same subject matter). It does find exact matches including those that have been cropped, edited or resized.

Identification of Rights Holders

At all times the identification of the existence of any rights holder to an image and the clearance of those rights is the responsibility of the one making use of the image. It is not the responsibility of the institution providing the image. If there is any question as to whether the NYPL holds any rights to an image (and there are very few instances of this) one must contact the Permissions Department. In some cases where a rights holder exists but identification is difficult you may wish to search imagewiki or to employ the Copyright Clearance Center.


Patron-generated content represents the views and interpretations of the patron, not necessarily those of The New York Public Library. For more information see NYPL's Website Terms and Conditions.

Photographic sources available

You have given the public an excellent overview of the multiple sources available to locate images. At times, it can be daunting to find you way around the on-line resources. I intend to bookmark this blog for my research. Thank you for the concise descriptions.

Great post! Thank you for

Great post! Thank you for the valuable information.

How To Find Photographs and Images in the Library and Beyond

Matthew J. Boylan's list is valuable, made more so by his annotations and links. I suggest that he add mention of the illustrations in books. Librarians and book distributors take a great deal of time and care to identify books, following long established and constantly improving standards of cataloguing. The full citation of a book includes a note when it has illustrations, although illustrated novels may be an exception, and non-fictional books have keywords and sometimes tags that can help in the search for a particular image within the book. It is usually easy to identify the copyright source when an image is needed for a university paper or publication, for books usually have a page that shows that information. Finally, when it is done with permission and care, an image can be easily photocopied or photographed, now with good results from improved digital photography.

WWII Monument @ Houghton/Stachowski Park, Kaisertown, Buffalo NY

We are looking for a photo of the WWII Monument at Houghton-Stachowski Park when it was approx. 100 yards south of where it is now placed. The monument was installed in 1947. We are in the process of having the monument restored and need a photo of how it originally looked. Thank You. . .Carole Kancar (Veterans & Friends of Heroes Grove @ Houghton Stachowski Park)

Post new comment