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10 photo archive websites that let you lose yourself in history

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Thousands of dedicated historians, photography enthusiasts, and archivists across the globe have spent years digitizing antique and vintage imagery to make it available for everyone to view online. Whether you’re interested in a specific area or era of the past or just feeling nostalgic for different times, browsing these collections is absolutely fascinating. From missions to the moon to quirky 1930s studio portraits via vintage Vogue photoshoots, we’re sure you’ll find something brilliant to browse in these amazing photo archive websites.

An amazing, free-to-access resource for Californians — and Californi-fans — Calisphere is an impressive collection of photographs, documents, letters, artwork, diaries, oral histories, films, advertisements, musical recordings, and more, all from the great state of California. The collection has a wide base of contributors, including . It also includes material and content from libraries, museums, historical societies, and other cultural heritage organizations in the state. This collaboration has resulted in more than one million photos alone.

Crate label from the Riverside Public Library Citrus Label Collection

Image: CaLISPHERE, university of california

Flickr needs no introduction, and its The Commons project is well-known worldwide as a global photography collection that is copyright-free and available for anyone to use. With a “key goal … to share hidden treasures from the world’s public photography archives,” it was originally started back in 2008 as a pilot project with the Library of Congress. There are now hundreds of participating institutions — as diverse as the National Library of Norway and the Royal Australian Historical Society — that have contributed both contemporary and historic imagery. Copyright-free content from the public is welcome, too.

Europeana works with thousands of European archives, libraries, and museums to share cultural heritage for “enjoyment, education, and research.” Europeana offers millions of books, music, and artworks that are free for anyone to view online, but it really shines on the photography front with some well-curated collections you can browse in detail. These include “Life on Polaroid,” a fascinating look at instant photography over the years; an “Autochrome” gallery that focuses on the pioneering photographic work of turn-of-the-century inventors the Lumiere brothers; and a collection of botanical images from British botanist and photographer Anna Atkins.

The George Eastman Legacy Collection is all about the life and work of the father of the consumer photography industry, George Eastman, who founded the Eastman Kodak company. This collection is an extensive resource encompassing his home in Rochester, New York, as well as his private library, correspondence, and personal collections. Eastman’s personal photograph collection is made up of loose photographs and albums, nitrate and glass plate negatives, and lantern slides. There are more than 9,500 nitrate negatives and 3,642 lantern slides that have so far been digitized. Images of Eastman’s African safaris are of particular interest, as it was unusual for such trips to be so well documented at the time. 

Color sketch of Kodak racing car, gift of Jim Albright

Color sketch of Kodak racing car, gift of Jim Albright

Image: George eastman legacy collection

George Edward Anderson was an early American photographer known for his portraiture and documentary photographs. This 14,020-strong collection of his images will give you fabulous insight into everyday life in America during the period from when Anderson began his photography career in 1878 to his death in 1928. Anderson’s images primarily focus on people and places in Utah, but he did travel further afield documenting people, landscapes, railroad history, mining, Church of the Latter-Day Saints temple buildings, and historic sites.

You’ll be intrigued to check out this quirky collection — composed of over 4,500 digitized negatives and original studio prints — when you read that the images were captured by “Elfie Huntington, the deaf photographer with a sense of humor, and Joseph Daniel Bagley, fellow photographer and business partner, bee-keeper, and sometime town wit.” The collection dates from between 1903 and 1939, consisting mostly of studio portraits captured by the pair, who were based in Utah and had their studio directly opposite George Edward Anderson, of whom Huntington was once an apprentice. There are some documentary-style portraits of Utah residents thrown in, too. 

Harvard’s Digital Collections are an incredibly impressive free resource, offering public access to more than six million objects digitized from the prestigious university’s many collections, including a gallery of American currency, vintage images of women working from 1800 to 1930, and a large range of early daguerreotypes. However, since the amount of content is so vast, it’s more of a resource to use if you have a specific area you want to research, as opposed to a casual browsing option. If you want to have a look at curated collections, consider sub-site, which offers a more bite-sized approach to the content.

Currency issued by the United States Post Office in 1862 for stamp purchases.

Currency issued by the United States Post Office in 1862 for stamp purchases.

Image: Harvard digital collections

Pop culture fans would do well to check out this commercial photography archive that you can browse for free. The archives have historic images from the worlds of fashion, rock, film, politics, and royalty, many shot by renowned photographers such as Terry O’Neill, Tom Stoddard, and Eva Sereny. Visit for imagery of the likes of David Bowie, Elton John, Marilyn Monroe, Jimi Hendrix, Audrey Hepburn, Frank Sinatra, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, and Led Zeppelin. There is also a wealth of Vogue fashion photography from the late 1930s to modern day, as well as visuals covering politicians from Winston Churchill to JFK.

Anyone with an interest in Scotland will love the MacKinnon Collection, which contains more than 14,000 images spanning 100 years of Scottish life. The images, acquired by the National Library of Scotland and National Galleries of Scotland, cover a wide range of subjects, including family portraits, street scenes, working life, sport, transport, and landscapes. The collection dates from the early beginnings of photography in the 1840s to the 1940s.

Studio photograph of a boys' football team

Studio photograph of a boys’ football team

Image: mackinnon collection

The Project Apollo Archive is a “repository of digital images pertaining to the historic manned lunar landing program,” or in other words, a really cool collection of old space pics. The Archive was created by space enthusiast and photographer Kipp Teague in 1999 as a companion project to his “Contact Light” personal retrospective on Project Apollo. It’s currently got nearly 16,000 images on Flickr, many of which are images shot by the actual Apollo astronauts in the 1960s and onwards.

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