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New Database Builds a Biographical History of Photography

The Photographers' Identities Catalog, as compiled by the New York Public Library (screenshot via pic.nypl.org)
The Photographers’ Identities Catalog, as compiled by the New York Public Library (all screenshots via pic.nypl.org)

The New York Public Library (NYPL) has launched an incredibly handy new tool for anyone conducting photography-related research or simply interested in exploring the history of the medium through the lives of its practitioners. In the online Photographers’ Identities Catalog (PIC), you can now peruse the biographical data of some 110,000 people involved with photography, from the days of the earliest daguerreotypes to the present year.

The moon on the map, a là Georges Méliès (click to enlarge)
The moon as shown on the PIC map, a là Georges Méliès (click to enlarge)

Each individual profile provides basic information such as birth date and location, but also relays the processes the photographer used, as well as the collections in which you can find his or her work. Besides searching for a specific artist, you can look up studios, organizations (such as NASA or Magnum), or distributors (such as the early stereoscopic company Underwood & Underwood).

One neat use of PIC may be its ability to aid in dating photographs: if you have a collection of old studio portraits, as NYPL’s David Lowe explains, you can search by the studio name and address, which are often printed somewhere on the card, and discover the periods when the studio was active, thus pinpointing a set of years. More broadly, since the search engine is equipped with many filters — from date to nationality — PIC is great for simply exploring specific interests. The database also displays results on a map, allowing you to quickly scan by region — even on the moon.

Maybe you’re interested in Czech photographers active in the 1800s or artists working in India who created photogravures. Perhaps you’re curious about female Navajo shutterbugs — a search for which only produces one result right now, unfortunately: Anna B. Crews. But the collection is regularly updated, and the NYPL team welcomes your contributions via email.

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