Episode 76: Who’s That Baby? Tips for Solving Snapshot Mysteries

In this episode I’m sharing tips on dealing with twentieth century baby photos and news from Rootstech. 

You’re probably thinking I wish I was the Photo Detective. I bet she doesn’t have any unidentified photos.  Well…that’s not quite true. I have some. Most folks do. I’m working through the few I have by studying the clues and my family history.  One of them is a group portrait. My Dad identified his father and grandfather. The rest are up to me. It’s likely a community group gathered for a summer outing. That’s the hard part.  More about this photo in a future episode of The Photo Detective. 

In a recent blog post I shared details about a photo buying trip with my daughter. She knows the sentimental value of photos and was appalled to see the piles of baby pictures in baskets and boxes.  Discarded and unloved. It struck a chord with us both. For some reason baby pictures seem to end up without names. At least that’s my experience viewing client photo collections.  

Those unidentified infant snapshots nag me to solve their mystery.  So I took another look at the ones in my collection. 

I’m lucky.  My Mom is still with us and her memory is pretty good for 90.  We’ve gone through the photos and she’s identified most of them. She gets stuck on the baby photos. I mean who doesn’t.  We think we’re going to write the names on the back, but why would we. We know the identity of that cherubic face. Therein lies the problem.  Fast forward a few decades and you find you have more than a few photos of infants. I do. I bet you do too. I was working through my images adding metadata in MemoryWeb when I kept finding baby pictures with no names on the backs. It’s like they sprouted from the collection when I wasn’t looking.  It’s one of those moments when you think, HOW could I have overlooked that?! 

So what’s a family photo detective to do?  Here are some suggestions. 

Ask a Relative 

So first I asked Mom.  Problem was, every baby was my cousin Lou. That can’t be right I thought. I won’t tell you WHY she thought they were all him. It’s one of those family things.  Do you have a relative you can ask either a DNA match or through a genealogy database like Ancestry, Family Search, or MyHeritage? MyHeritage Instant Discoveries might help connect you to a cousin.  Listen to episode # to learn more about how Instant Discoveries works

Research the Photographer

While All of my mystery baby pictures are snapshots you might have some taken in a studio.  I treat photographers like members of the family and research them using city directories, census records, AND by googling the name.  Work dates for the studios might help put the photo in a time frame. 

Lay out the images. 

There is something about seeing all your mystery photos laid out in view. You can spot things you’ve missed.  It’s all about getting a new perspective on the image. I’ll often look at the real photos but also examine them on my computer so I can easily enlarge details.  

In this case, I’ll start by putting them on the table. I already know they aren’t the same infant because the photo formats are a bit different. They all date from the mid-twentieth century.  A lot of my first cousin’s on my Mom’s side were born then. So who’s who? That’s what I’m trying to figure out. 

Look at the Details

Next up is studying the details in the picture. The baby carriages, their clothing, and what’s in the background. It might be household goods or if it was taken outside there could be a car. None of these images feature another person. That would be TOO easy.  I’ll look at each image one at a time and research the details. 

A Game of Facial Concentration

You know that game where you lay all the cards down on a table face down and you try to find the matches.  That’s what it’s like when you start to compare faces. MemoryWeb incorporates an algorithm that gets smarter with facial identification. It’s pretty cool.  These babies are making it stumble right now. So it’s time to take out all the photos of my cousins and lay them side by side the baby images. I’m sure one of them is Lou but not all of them.  I have other photographs of him as a toddler and a baby. 

Babies have soft faces but some have identifiers that make them stand out–a full head of hair, pointy ears, eye color for instance. 

Photo news from Rootstech

MyHeritage  founder shared that there were 1 million images colorized in a few days with their MyHeritage In Color™ tool. It’s pretty cool. Right now, anyone can use it.  Improvements include the ability to download side by side images of the original and the colorized one.  A logo in the corner of the colorized ones identifying them as enhanced. The machine learning model means that there will be changes to color accuracy too.  Using their database of uploaded images, MyHeritage is trying create a tool to date photos. Watch for news of this development!   

MyHeritage also announced a new City Directory collection. This is great news whether you’re searching for a family member or the photographer that took your great grandparent’s photo. 

Unfortunately I heard some unfortunate news at Rootstech.  Flip-pal is currently no longer. I don’t have all the details, but when I came home I immediately hugged the one in my office.  It revolutionized our ability to bring a scanner with us and it was only the size of a small purse. There are other small scanners out there.  I don’t use sheet fed scanners with images nor do I use a wand. I’ll be giving the Doxie Q scanner a try. It’s a bit more expensive than a Flip-pal but it holds approximately 7200 images and integrates with an app for smartphones. It has 8GB of memory.  At two pounds and less than a foot it’s small enough to carry around. I

Mystery Photo of the Month.

February seems to be the time for huge photo discoveries.  Last year at Rootstech, I did a virtual consult with a woman and discovered that she had an Edward Curtis photo in her family collection. Curtis’s cyanotypes documented Native Americans and it is thought his images were first printed this way. Their blue tone is quite distinctive. 

This month a consult with a couple,  revealed that the wife owned a snapshot of a well known western female celebrity in a family album. An auction house agreed with my analysis.   I can’t tell you who yet, that’s a secret until the family decides what to do with the image. 

Stay tuned for news about two new Master Classes this Spring.

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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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