The photo collection of the National Archives – Estonia’s largest collection of historical photographs – took shape as a result of the 1935 Archives Act and the Soviet-era archival system. The oldest photographs date from the late 19th century archives of persons and societies, including the portraits and albums of Baltic German families (zur Mühlen, Krusenstern, Ungern-Sternberg), student fraternities (Estonia, Livonia, Estonian Students’ Society) and the agriculture and genealogy societies (Estonian Agricultural Society of Tartu, Matriculation Commission of the Estonian Welfare Association, German Genealogical Society of Tartu). The National Archives’ oldest photograph – a daguerreotype from the late 1840s – and 12 ferrotypes are noteworthy rarities.
The archives contain collections based on photographers, collectors, individuals, companies, organisations, schools and institutions of state. The latter include police photos of criminals and fugitives, and photographs of weapons and driving licences. The largest part of the photo collections of the Film Archives consist of the collections of Estonian newspaper offices. Since the 1990s, the newspapers preserve their collections inhouse, but in the Soviet times, the archives made periodic acquisitions from nearly all newspapers, particular collections of note were those of the ETA wire service (64,000 photographs), Rahva Hääl newspaper and Spordileht.
The archives also contain matter of interest to military buffs: personal archives of military figures, albums documenting World War I, the Defence League districts, the members of Estonian cabinets of ministers.
Photos from émigré Estonian organisations and personal archives describe how Estonians in the various countries lived: participation in the ESTO festivals, celebration of various anniversaries. The oldest photos depicting Estonians’ daily lives are from America, and the Far East and Russia.
Film-related photo collections include albums of screen tests for feature films and photos from the set for Tallinnfilm studio. Numerous photos of theatres in the Estonian SSR are also preserved here.