Tips for Researchers: Vintage Photographs
by Richenda Fairhurst
Before you use that old
photograph in a commercial
publication, you must try to determine who owns the rights to
it. This can be easy. For example, if the photograph
you want to use came from the local library, the photo archivist (or
librarian) will likely have all the necessary information pertaining to
the photograph. They can tell you about the rights holder, if
any, and how to obtain permission to use the photograph.
Perhaps, though, your photograph comes from a box in the garage.
You can frame it and hang it on the wall, but before you can distribute
copies or use it in a publication, you are required by law to use “due
diligence” to find the rights holder if there is one. What
exactly is “due diligence?” That is for property rights attorneys
to argue over and judges and lawmakers to decide. But basically,
you have to be professional and do some research.
Start with the photograph itself. The best situation is one where
the photographer or rights holder has clearly noted his ownership of
the photograph, either with his/her name, stamp, and/or a negative
number. Early photographers etched his/her name into the image
itself. If you have a name, or part of a name, consider yourself
lucky. If you have a location, that’s a start. If there’s
some particular activity, such as whaling or a swim meet, maybe that
Check the photograph thoroughly, front and back. Record any
numbers, dates, or names. Was there any other material associated
with the photograph? Keep a notebook that records the steps you
took to identify the image. Keep track of any leads that might
come up, but be careful of false leads. The name written on the
back might not be
the photographer, or photographic subject, or print owner, or donor, or
anything important at all. The date jotted down, may not be the
Start your search:
- Google: Google is a good way to start. Google
name of the photographer, if you have one. Google the
photographer’s name with key words, such as “photographer” “Chicago” or
“1930.” Google any identifying elements of the image such as
“Gus’s Tavern,” or “Merlene’s Dance Studio,” or even “logging,”
“railroad,” or “shipyard.” See what comes up.
- Copyright Office: US Copyright Searches are next. If
have the name of the photographer or photo studio, go to the US
Copyright web page and do a search for those names. Sometimes you
will find a lead this way, even if you do not find the answer in
- Book search: There are bound publications which list
photographers active in any particular regional area. Call your
public or university library, or historical society, and ask if they
have copies of these reference books.
- Libraries: Your local public or university library
can be a
big help. You can visit and ask to speak to a photo archivist and
they will be familiar with photographs from your area. Also, many
libraries have digitized their holdings, either the photos themselves
or the photo catalogs. Go into the university or library web
site, and find their collections pages. Do a search over the
internet, or search their records and holdings at the
library. Search on what you have, locations, activities,
dates. Talk with the photo archivist. Show them the
photograph in question and ask them if they are familiar with it.
- Historical Societies: These are great resources of
information. Talk to the photograph archivist, or even the
staff. They may be able to give you information about the
image. They may also have reference books and photographic
archives you can search for information.
- Make phone calls: Photographers who left their names,
addresses and phone numbers can still be hard to track. Make
phone calls to the libraries, museums and historical societies that
are, or were, local to
- Clue follow up: Follow the clues in the
Is the photograph of a corporate event? Call that company and ask
to speak with their archivist. Is someone in the photograph
identified? Try to find out if they are still around and if they
can give you any information about the photograph.
- Local senior's center: Depending on the date of the
photograph, visit the local senior center with the photograph in
hand. Ask around as to who or what might be in the photograph,
and who might have taken it. Take notes.
- Donors: Perhaps you tracked the photograph to a
museum. Check the museum records and try to determine the
donor. If a donor is listed, are they still living? Look in
the local phone book and make some calls. If you manage to find
the donor, ask if they remember anything about the photograph.
Whichever steps are most appropriate in your case, take good
notes. Keep those notes with your project, so you have a record
of the steps you took to identify the photograph and rights
holder. The process can seem
overwhelming, but in practice many of these leads do not work
out. That is why it can be
helpful to have a number of potential ways to begin.
- Newspaper archives. If the photograph is printed on,
copied from newsprint, this is another type of lead. Check your
image copy for identifying news items, stories, names, or dates.
Determine which newspaper printed the story, and take it to the
newspaper offices. Or, take it to the local newspaper and ask if
they recognize the photograph or story. You can also check the
newspaper archives for the story, and perhaps gain some information
about the photographer.
Using the results of your search:
At some point in your search you will have determined that the work is
either in the public domain, or that someone in particular is the
rights holder. The other option, when no rights holder can be
determined, is that the work might be considered to be “Orphaned.”
- Public Domain. If the image is in the public domain,
you have a usable copy of that image, then there are no restrictions to
publication. You should probably still try to get information
about the image, such as the names of the subjects. You should
also try to find out who the photographer was so you can give them
credit for their work.
Hopefully, these tips will help you determine rights for the photograph
you want to use. And please,
share what you learned about the photograph with other researchers and
archivists in your area. Pass along the information you gain to
the local historical society.
- Copyrights or property rights. If the image is still
copyright protection (copyright), or if you need a copy from an image
that someone else has physical ownership of (property rights), you have
to apply to the rights owner to use it--and likely pay a fee and agree
to usage restrictions. Usually museums, libraries and historical
societies hold property of copy rights for old photographs.
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Fairhurst and historyfish.net, 2006
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