<<Return to Articles                                                                                                                                          Return to Historyfish.net>>

Tips for Researchers: Vintage Photographs

by Richenda Fairhurst                                                                                     March 2006 

historyfishSTOP!  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 can help.  

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 right date, either.

Start your search:

  • Google:  Google is a good way to start.  Google the 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 you 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 particular. 
  • 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 that photographer. 
  • Clue follow up:  Follow the clues in the photograph.  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.
  • Newspaper archives.  If the photograph is printed on, or 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.
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. 

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, and 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.  
  • Copyrights or property rights.  If the image is still under 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. 
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.

Back to historyfish articles
Go to historyfish.net
Leave a Comment
(c) Copyright Richenda Fairhurst and historyfish.net, 2006
All rights reserved. No commercial permissions are granted.

Permission freely granted to educators to copy and/or circulate this essay as needed for classroom use.  Please keep author, source and copyright permissions with this article.  Webmasters, feel free to link directly to this page.

Disclaimer:  Historyfish  intends to generate discussion through community boards, essays, and shared information and does not claim to provide, in any way, formal, legal, or factual advice or information. These pages are opinion only.  Opinions shared on historyfish are intended to be part of a wider discourse, and are  not necessarily the opinions of historyfish editors, staff, or administration.    Always consult proper authorities with questions pertaining to copyrights, property rights, and intellectual property rights.