Photographer ancestors

This guide was last updated in 2009

Tracking down ancestors behind the camera can be a fascinating and rewarding experience, as photographic historian and curator Colin Harding explains.

One of the most exciting sources of information for family historians is collections of family photographs – lovingly preserved in leather-bound albums or stashed in biscuit tins or shoeboxes. However, rather than being merely the subject of studio portraits, perhaps one of your forebears was a portrait photographer themselves, just as Fiona Bruce’s ancestor was.

Europe’s first public photographic studio was opened at the Polytechnic Institute in Regent Street, London, by Richard Beard in March 1841. He employed John Frederick Goddard, a science lecturer, to take the portraits – the first professional photographer.

During the early 1840s, other studios appeared in major cities such as Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester, but portrait photography was confined to the relatively wealthy – a daguerreotype cost around one guinea, well beyond the means of most people.

In 1851, advances including the introduction of glass negatives heralded an explosion in commercial photography and a huge expansion in the number of studios. By the late 1860s, practically every town in Britain had at least one and most had several.

Early professionals came to photography from a wide range of backgrounds and it was quickly identified as a suitable employment for women. By the 1890s, over 20 per cent of professional photographers were female. In addition, of course, many photographers employed their wives or daughters as receptionists, colourists or dark room assistants.

There were studios to suit every purse – from chic West End establishments catering for the gentry, to humble family-run establishments in the side streets of provincial towns. In the 1890s, a single portrait at the most fashionable London studios could cost as much as three guineas while the cheapest studios supplied cartes de visite at 2s 6d a dozen.

Here are some ideas about where to find out more about your relatives who worked in the professional photography business.

Photo © Mary Evans Picture Library

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