Photo Provenance Project

Establishing Photo Provenance, A Collaborative Cousin Project

Photo Provenance Project-01


There is a magical moment that genealogists seek.


A moment so special that it takes our breath away.  Sometimes it makes us cry.  Always we are mesmerized and can’t help but stop and gaze in wonder.

It’s the moment we see an ancestor’s face for the very first time in a photo.

The photo pulls us into the past.  It gives us a glimpse into the life of an ancestor.  It connects us in a tangible way to the very people to whom we owe our existence.

But that magical moment also brings with it a whole host of questions.  Questions that all boil down to one very important word––provenance.

Photo provenance is essentially the history of a photo.  A good photo description written to address provenance will hopefully answer these questions about a photo:


  • Who is in it?
  • When was it taken?
  • Where was it taken?
  • What was the occasion?
  • How did the photo get from the original owner to the current owner?
  • Who labeled the photo?
  • When did they label the photo?
  • Why would they know their label is correct?
  • Why do we trust the label?


Establishing provenance of a digital photo is even more difficult.  Does the person who shared it with you really know the answers to these questions?  Do they have the physical photo in their possession?  Did they scan it?  If not, where did they get the digital file?

When these questions can’t be answered, hopefully, it gives us pause before we click “save to tree,” do a right-click save, or hit the download button.

When we save a photo with no provenance that is a photo of an ancestor or family member we have never seen before, how do we know that we are saving good information?  Do we really want a photo of “that” person so badly that we are fine with saving a photo of dubious origin?  A photo that might be of an entirely different person?

I hope not!

Not every photo requires the full treatment when it comes to provenance.  When a person’s face has been firmly established by multitudes of descendants, we probably don’t need to write a one-page summary detailing every bit of knowledge concerning that photo.

For instance, I knew my Grandma Deane personally and well.  She was alive until I was in my forties.  I grew up seeing photos of her and her family.  Over many years she personally identified herself and others in photos for me.  The hundreds (maybe thousands) of photos of her face in my collection represent a large group of photos for which I am the current steward.  When you see one photo of her that I have shared, you have many others you can compare that photo to from various places where I have shared her pictures online.

My online digital photo footprint for Grandma Deane is very large.  And while that means I have a lot less pressure to add lengthy descriptions, I still need a good description.

My photo descriptions should include important details like her name, the date of the photo, where the photo was taken, and what the occasion was.  I want to make sure that the photo also shows my name somewhere and my relationship to her as her granddaughter.

But after that, I probably don’t need to explain hundreds of times exactly the path each photo of her took from the time it was printed until I scanned it.  There is no worry that I might be mislabeling a photo of someone else when that photo is viewed within the context of the whole of the Grandma Deane collection.

So with that in mind, which photos need the most attention concerning their provenance?

That is a good question!

I would suggest these photo circumstances require full provenance treatment, if possible:


  • Very old photos
  • Photos that represent someone we never personally knew
  • Photos that are the “only” or one of very few images of a person
  • Photos that required detective work on our part to identify
  • Photos that we asked older relatives about


Recently, I had some questions about photos in various cousins’ online trees.  You see, they didn’t all agree as to who was pictured in those photos.  I reached out to my wonderful cousin Gregg and asked him a few questions about what I was seeing.

Well, one thing led to another, and Gregg and I decided it was time to get really serious about documenting the provenance of our family photos on our shared line.

Gregg has a wonderful collection that he has very graciously shared with me over the years.  Some of those photos I have already shared here, others I have not.  Because the photos are mostly in Gregg’s possession, he will be doing the bulk of the writing about the provenance of each individual photo.  Then I will turn that information into a blog post to share here along with the photo.  That post will be linked to each online instance of that photo and when possible, the text of that post will be added to the photo as a comment.

Our goal is to leave a wonderful photo legacy for the many descendants of our beloved ancestors.  A photo legacy that includes enough details about the provenance of each photo that our family members will be able to trust our work, trust our photo descriptions.

And so I extend an invitation to my cousins who may read this or future posts:

If you have a copy of a photo that I have shared and your photo label is different, PLEASE, comment or send me an email.  Gregg and I want to make sure the photo labels in our collection are correct, complete, and detailed.  If you have a photo label that offers conflicting information, we definitely want to consider your label and hope you will work with us to try to get to the bottom of any photo label differences.

Alternatively, if you have a copy of a photo that I have shared and your photo label agrees with our label, I hope you will also comment or email to let me know you have a photo label that matches ours.  I hope you will also share a bit about the provenance of your copy.  When we have multiple copies of the same photo, with labels in agreement that have passed down through different family lines, and aren’t just copies shared by the same genealogist cousin, that is nice confirmation of our independent photo labels.  We definitely want to know about that!



Happy Wednesday, dear readers!  Have you considered how you will address the labels on your oldest and rarest photos?  xoxo