Dating Nineteenth Century Photographs, by Robert Pols

Pols cvr

Dating Nineteenth Century Photographs was published by the Federation of Family History Societies in 2005.  Concentrating on professional studio portraits, it is designed to aid the amateur family historian in assessing photographic material from a time when the technology was developing at a phenomenal rate: as Robert Pols notes in his introduction, the Victorian period spanned the era from the announcement of the invention of photography to the snapshot.  For the newcomer whose interest is genealogy rather than photography per se it can all be rather confusing.   The book is a revised version of Dating Old Photographs (1995), which has been split into two, the second volume covering the early part of the twentieth century.

Despite the tile, Pols begins with a potted history, describing Niépce’s experiments, the daguerreotype and of course Fox Talbot’s negative-positive calotype process.  Improvements came thick and fast, and Pols touches on these and social aspects as photography became widespread and the costs fell.  He notes that many studio photographers were unadventurous and tended to follow convention, a reluctance to innovate which can assist the historian to date the photographs they produced.  Also, while there were numerous processes, those likely to encountered fall into relatively few types.

Dating photographs consists of drawing together various strands of evidence.  Some of these relate to the process used, the physical object (sizes and mounts for example), as well as the image.  Names and addresses of photographers, where provided, can be helpful, especially when used in conjunction with trade directories, as is information on patronage and warrants on the back.  Costume is an obvious guide as fashions change, but studio settings, composition and framing can be helpful too.  For all these pointers, it is not an exact science and a best guess based on experience may be necessary when individual details within a photograph offer conflicting interpretations.  Pols warns that caution needs to be exercised to ensure that incorrect inferences are not drawn and that often an approximate date, or a range of dates, is the best that can be achieved.

The book includes general advice on preservation, a section of photographs to illustrate the dating points made, a series of charts covering, chronologically: processes and formats; mounts; some professional studios; the granting of royal warrants; changes in setting and composition; and fashions.  A bibliography concludes the book, but there is no index.  Its age is slightly given away by the advice that anyone finding a negative can make a contact print using photographic paper.  There is also extensive advice on how to make copies using a film SLR camera, with or without a copy stand.  Digitisation and computers are mentioned only briefly, almost in passing, and the assumption is that this type of operation is more likely to be done in a shop than at home.  That emphasis shows just how far we have come in the last ten years.  In addition to sophisticated scanners and editing software, these days there are extensive resources online, including message boards full of experts willing to help.   Despite this progress, Pols’ book is still worth a place on the shelf of anyone who needs to date Victorian studio photographs.


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