Double Take: Dating a Photograph

In this latest installment of Double Take, the series where we take a much closer look at images in our collections, we will talk about how to date a photograph. Do you have any older photographs, tucked away in boxes or albums? How many have a specific date noted on them? If your answer was ‘very few’, you are not alone. Many of our millions of photographs came to us undated, or without a specific date. We will often use what we know of the collection or the subject matter to apply a date range.

I came across a group of unusual stereographic aerial views of Washington, D.C. (Stereographs typically consist of two nearly identical photographs, paired to produce the illusion of a single three-dimensional image, usually when viewed through a stereoscope.) Unusual because most of the stereographs in our collections are commercially produced while these are quite clearly handmade, complete with hand-cut photos and handwritten captions. While the two halves of a stereograph are not identical, they will appear to be at first glance. The photos in this group appear to have been snapped successively from a moving plane or other airborne transportation, so there are slightly more obvious differences between the two photos. At some point in the fifty years since we acquired this group of undated photos, a date range of between 1935 and 1942 was applied. When I saw this photo, I noticed a detail that would alter that range, so I decided to explore further.

Library of Congress. Photo by Herbert E. Ives. //

Library of Congress. Photo by Herbert E. Ives. [Keep reading for date information!] //

This photo features the Library of Congress Jefferson Building at center, and it’s always good to start with a subject you know well! The Library of Congress campus now consists of three buildings. In addition to the Jefferson Building, completed in 1897, there are the John Adams Building and the James Madison Building. In the detail photo below, the arrows point to the locations where those two buildings will be in the future. The Madison, where the Prints and Photographs Division is, will take up the entire block at lower right. The Adams will be at the right edge, where a few smaller buildings are visible. The oldest of the two is the Adams, which opened to the public January 3, 1939. So, this photo is before 1939.

Detail of Library of Congress. Photo by Herbert E. Ives. [Keep reading for date information!] //

Detail of Library of Congress. Photo by Herbert E. Ives. [Keep reading for date information!] //

At this point in my attempt to establish a date range for the photograph, I can focus on what is missing or what is present. Buildings or other details missing from a photo go towards fixing an end date while existing details help establish the earliest date. Based on the photo lacking the Adams Building, we now have a new end date for the range: 1939.

Detail of Library of Congress. Photo by Herbert E. Ives. [Keep reading for date information!] //

Detail of Library of Congress. Photo by Herbert E. Ives. [Keep reading for date information!] //

There is a smokestack at the rear of the Jefferson Building in this photo. In order to create new space for the Rare Book Division, an extension was added to the eastern side of the building, and the smokestack was removed to make way. The extension was completed in January 1933, so now we know the photo has to be before that date.

What other current buildings in the area are missing?

Two large white buildings near the Library today stand out in their absence. Both locations are marked with red arrows in the detail photo at right. Today, in the block north of the Library of Congress Jefferson Building is the U.S. Supreme Court. Construction began in 1932 and so this photo has to be before 1932. To the east of the Library is now the Folger Shakespeare Library. Construction began on the Folger in 1929, so we can step back another three years and say this photo was taken before 1929.

Using the high resolution digital file of this photo, I zoom in and try to spot other details. I return to the Jefferson Building, a structure I know in detail. Around the dome there are four quadrants, all of which were empty when the building was constructed. To create more storage space, two of the quadrants were later filled in with book stacks (areas for book storage). I can see the southeast book stacks are there, but what about the northeast? It takes a very close look and a bit of extra knowledge to confirm that the northeast stacks are not there yet. The cylindrical shape indicated by the white arrow in the detail photo below encloses a spiral staircase. Once the book stacks were built, it was no longer visible from the exterior. So, this photo dates from before the northeast book stacks, which were completed March 1927.

Detail of Library of Congress. Photo by Herbert E. Ives. [Keep reading for date information!] //

Detail of Library of Congress. Photo by Herbert E. Ives. [Keep reading for date information!] //

If I shift now in my focus to evaluating what exists in the photograph to what is missing, I can use the southeast book stacks as a point of reference. They were completed in January 1910, so the photo dates between January 1910 and March 1927. What else is existing in the photo which could provide a date? If we look back at the full stereograph, the Cannon House Office Building is in the lower left corner. This building was completed in 1908, so it doesn’t move our date back, as it would have also existed in January 1910.

Library of Congress. Photo by Herbert E. Ives, between 1910 and 1927. //

Library of Congress. Photo by Herbert E. Ives, between 1910 and 1927. //

Along my journey of curiosity, I noticed some other small details in the photograph that will take further research to use towards accurate dating. I also uncovered fascinating information about the photographer himself and his methods, which explains why these stereographs seem a bit unusual. Today, by focusing wholly on the built structures present and absent in this photo, we were able to shift the date range back a few decades to between 1910 and 1927. As you can imagine, it is impractical for us to research each photo in our collection to this level, so this exploration can serve to show how much can be determined about certain photos with time, patience and site-specific knowledge and research. Stay tuned for the next chapter of this story in a future blog post!

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  1. Audrey Diffley
    September 28, 2019 at 8:11 am

    Thank you for this information. My family has boxes of old photographs dating back to the late 19 th century.

    Some were noted with details such as the subject, year and location. Others were left with no details.

    We try to sort them to learn more about our family’s history.

  2. Cheryl Lederle
    September 30, 2019 at 10:18 am

    I so very much enjoy this glimpse into your thinking processes – moving between close observation, prior knowledge, and research to pin down dates. Thanks!

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