Episode 54: Family Reunion Photos – Sorting the Clues

In August, I dedicated all my podcast episodes to family reunion focused activities and guests.

Since it’s Family Reunion season, that means we’re pretty likely to be posing for a group portrait.  It’s part of most reunions…a visual gathering of everyone at the event. We have dozens of pictures of my husband’s family reunion attendees.

In Episode 51, Edith Wagner of Reunions Magazine shared a story about a reunion photo where they use flat bed trucks to help with the layout. A recent news story shared the tale of one reunion of 60 people who were going to reenact a family reunion photo from the 1890s. 

Perhaps you’re part of a reunion gathering for everyone of a particular surname. Perhaps it’s an event that’s taken place for decades, if not a century, and there are group portraits of those. 

I bet very few of them contain the names of the people in the image. There is a simple reason. If you know the names of everyone in the picture, you’re less likely to write identifications on them.  The problem with that reasoning is that as time passes, so do the people who knew who was in the photo. Now the next generation has a photo mystery to solve. But how? 

That’s where I come in. As the Photo Detective I’ve developed methods to solving photo mysteries of all sizes from a picture of a single person to one that contains dozens.  I love working with you to solve your photo puzzles. Did you know that every photo collection is unique? They are. I should know, I look at thousands of images every year. 

I’m going to share 5 tips so you can get started. 

Start with the most recent photo. 

It’s a lot like the standard genealogy advice to begin with the present and work backwards. While looking at the photos, you’ll be time traveling in reverse. You’ll be watching people get younger instead of older. Try to match up the faces in these images. 

Bring all these big group portraits with you on your phone or tablet AND have an oversize copy made of the image for note taking. 

What you’re looking for are two things that anchor the pictures in a time frame.   Who’s the oldest person in the photo? Who’s the youngest? Those two people can date a picture. They help identify the time frame and in some cases the specific year. 

Where are they standing? 

I don’t know about you, but I have a tendency to stand near my husband and children in the group portraits. Study the image and look for clusters. There are a lot of different cluster combinations in group portraits. All the older siblings in the center is one option.  All the children in the front row is common too. But after that people with strong relationships tend to stand near each other. At this point think about all the family stories you’ve heard about who in the family had close ties. They are likely to be close together. 

No doubt about it, you’re going to need to know how old everyone in your family was at a particular point in time. And I mean everyone….cousins and spouses as well as children. 

Have you charted your family history? 

Spreadsheet. If you have known photos of those people you’ll add one or two to the spreadsheet and definitely ID them in your photo organizing program. 

I’m working on a descendancy chart for my husband’s next reunion. I collected information by meeting with the record keeper of every family. Now I’m transferring that information to family tree software so I can share it with FamilyChartmasters.com.  Janet Hovorka and I chatted about family trees in Episode 28 of The Photo Detective. I know that as soon as I have a draft they’ll be new twigs on the family tree though. 

Tag them. 

In a photo organizing program like Memory Web for instance, you can connect family history and family photos. You can tag everyone in a group portrait so that you don’t have to remember it later.  Yes, I know that I asked you to bring an oversized picture with you, but that’s for discussion and for posting in the reunion so that everyone can take a look. Be sure to have your phone recorder on when the discussion starts about who’s who and why they think so. 

You can save 30% on a Memory Web subscription by using this link.   

Now step back and think about what you’ve learned?  I guarantee you’ll have heard some new family anecdotes and maybe you’ll have identified more people in the photo.  

Want to know more about reading the clues in family photographs?

Take my Identifying Family Photographs course. I cover the techniques for turning an unidentified photo into one with a name and a place in your family history.  While my booking page limits you to 3 photos, if you have more, ask for a volume discount.  

I love the messages our ancestors left on their photographs. There are arguments about who’s who in different handwriting. Notes about loved ones. Captions that include who labeled the picture. Mathematical problems (this is true!) I’ve even found images with whole family trees outlined on the back explaining how the person in the image fits in the family. 

And then there is this message: “This old photo is only sent for protection for our photo.”

Curious isn’t it. It calls to mind a list of questions.

  • Who’s trying to protect it?
  • Why are they trying to protect it?
  • Who did the original owner send it to?

Whoever once owned it, this picture didn’t end up being passed down in the family. It ended up in an antique shop. There are no names on it. No full identities at all with the exception of the note and the arrow pointing out which person was their mother.

The only question we can answer is the last one. Along the bottom edge is a note in ink that blurred due to water damage. It says: “No doubt Aunt Flo you will recognize several of the others.”

Have you ever found more written on a picture than a date or a partial name? I thought I’d seen it all but then I found this image with plea for protection. I’d love to hear from you about what you’ve found written on images. 

In September, it’s back to school with episodes that focus on photo detecting.

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About Maureen Taylor:

Maureen is a frequent keynote speaker on photo identification, photograph preservation, and family history at historical and genealogical societies, museums, conferences, libraries, and other organizations across the U.S., London and Canada.  She’s the author of several books and hundreds of articles and her television appearances include The View and The Today Show (where she researched and presented a complete family tree for host Meredith Vieira).  She’s been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Better Homes and Gardens, The Boston Globe, Martha Stewart Living, Germany’s top newspaper Der Spiegel, American Spirit, and The New York Times. Maureen was recently a spokesperson and photograph expert for MyHeritage.com, an internationally known family history website and also writes guidebooks, scholarly articles and online columns for such media as Smithsonian.com. Learn more at Maureentaylor.com

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