100 Years Passport Photo

100 Years Passport Photo

2015 was actually the 100th anniversary of the passport photo, but it was unfortunately not much communicated or even celebrated. Only the British newspaper “The Sunday Post” published a brief article in March 2015. The history of Man’s most traveled document is quite impressive, entertaining, and educating at the same time. Here are some facts about the passport photo you might don’t know before.

The passport photo is since “just” 100 years a significant characteristic of any issued passport. The variations of photos were extensive when introduced in 1915. The exact date for launching the passport photo in German passports by law was 1. January 1915.

However, in the beginning, there were no rules on how a passport photo should look like. So you can find the most exciting photos from this time. For me, such early passports are ART as no passport (photo) looked the same considering the handwriting, the colorful stamps and revenues, and of course, the picture itself.

Before passport photos were introduced, there was only a description of the bearer. Only the British passport was for more than 100 years, the only passport without such a description of the holder. Then typically saying, “Mr. Peter Parker, a British subject, traveling on the continent.”

The description looked like that:

  • Age
  • Stature: e.g., small, tall, etc
  • Hair: color, bald, etc
  • Eyes: color
  • Face: e.g., round, oval, etc
  • Distinguishing marks: e.g., scar, tattoo, missing finger, etc

This was, of course, not much accurate, except for a truly outstanding distinguishing mark. Introducing a photo into a passport improved the verification of its bearer significantly (in combination with the personal description). However, passport photos were not standardized in the beginning, and so you can find all variations of photos.

E.g., people standing in the park (full-size photo), sitting on a bench or a horse, or showing them playing guitar. Photos with hats were widespread. Also, the sizes of a photograph were not defined, and all sizes were possible as long there was a place to mount them into a passport.

Here are some examples…

Fig 1.) Germany, Bremen 1921, a girl with a guitar
KR_Konstantinopel 1915b
Fig 2.) Germany, Ambassador von Wangenheim, 1915. His passport picture has the size of a postcard while his diplomatic passport also has a massive proportion of 33 x 41 cm.

By 1926 the rule of “full face, without a hat” was implemented in the UK, and the size of images had been specified. 100 Years Passport Photo

100 Years Passport Photo
Fig 3.) Japan 1934, girl in Kimono

Another very unusual photo is this one in an Andorran passport from 1942! Color or colorized photos were not ordinary at all at this time, so this is also an excellent example of the early use of a color photo. 100 Years Passport Photo

Andorran Passport 1942 with a color passport photo
Fig 4.) Andorra 1942, colorized photo

Passport photo rules became more strict in the 1960s (USA). You could not SMILE anymore in a passport photo. Another radical change was the switch to color photos, probably the end of the 1970s, which substantially increased the identifying accuracy of the photograph. 100 Years Passport Photo

100 Years Passport Photo
Fig 5.) Thailand 1970s

While passport photos had an “official character,” people were wearing back then more often a suit and tie. Also, this changed over time, and the “dress code” was more relaxed. 100 Years Passport Photo

In the 21st century, the passport doesn’t contain a laminated photo print anymore. Instead, the entire page/photo has been digitally generated. This supports, of course, fraud and forgery — several security features like a hologram, watermark, and microprinting protecting the digital photo. 100 Years Passport Photo

Fig 6.) Thailand, version with hologram


100 Years Passport Photo
Fig 7.) UK passport, the latest version

Indeed, the idea of the photograph as a physical object with some authenticity or history has been erased. Who knows if passports will be around in 20 years? They may become artifacts of the “print era,” along with the vast majority of other photographs that used to be printed but are now seen only on screens. 100 Years Passport Photo


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