A few weeks ago I was in the kitchen of a cousin on my Dad’s side scanning her photos and recording her thoughts on them. All of a sudden she leaned over and pointed at an image. “That’s my favorite photo,” she said. “ I don’t know why. There is nothing special about it.” The color snapshot from the 1960s showed her mother stuffing a turkey getting ready for Thanksgiving. It wasn’t the best image of her mother. Jeanette couldn’t remember who took the candid. The event took place in the kitchen in which I was standing. Her parents bought the house and Jeanette still lived there with her sister. The turkey in the image was on the very table on which I had my scanner.
Over the years I’ve wondered what makes some photos stand out from all the others. How my clients select the three images for their consultations. Why those? Amongst all the unidentified images in their collections why are those the most important? They call us to solve the riddle.
I have a few favorites of my own. Those that date from my lifetime and those that predate my life. Perhaps you have a favorite or two as well.
Reflect on what makes that image special
Perhaps it’s the occasion or the person that’s depicted. In Jeanette’s case the image captured a holiday memory. I’m not a psychologist so I can’t delve into her thoughts about that time. She eats off the same table that her parents did. The kitchen virtually unchanged since the photo. The image and the house are a time capsule. One that pays homage to her family.
When you examine a photo consider what it means to you in terms of time, place and people.
One of my favorite snapshots depicts my family on the steps of my mother’s sister’s house. We’re all decked out for Easter. My Mom wears the most amazing dress with a puffy net slip. She holds my sister who’s only a few months old. I’m in a hat.
Things were good for us then. Within a year, my father would be seriously ill and times became tough. He survived but life was never quite like the moment captured in that image.
There is another image in my family that I treasure and I don’t own it. In 2012 I visited a first cousin in New York. She’d recently inherited several boxes of family stuff–documents and photographs. I was happy to help. In that jumble we found pictures of her father, my paternal uncle. A man I only met once. He lived on one coast and we lived on the other. He and my Dad looked alike. Shirlee and I swapped stories all day long.
And in that box was a tiny image. A colorized photo booth picture of our grandmother, Eliza. Taken I believe around 1943. On her head is a wonderful white straw summer hat. She’s smiling. In the image she’s younger than I am today.
Every image is special. At least to me. The images in my albums, the ones in your shoeboxes, and those that are abandoned to become instant ancestors. There are stories embedded in those moments captured by the camera if you study them and ask questions. Then delve into the answers.
It’s no secret that I love photographs. It’s what I’ve dedicated my life to–identifying, preserving, sharing, and organizing. Never met a photo I didn’t like. Thank you for asking me to weigh in your mysteries. If you want a consult, there are now two options. My usual three photos session and a special limited one picture offer. Link in the show notes.
Social Media Fun
I hope you’re following my Alphabet of Photo History on social media. It was fun to put together.
This month, I started a new series on Instagram @photodetective. It’s Around the World in 80 Photos. I’ve spent weeks in the house dreaming about places I’d like to see. Travel is pretty much not going to happen for a bit. As a fan of Jules Verne’s science fiction, I thought about all the images I’ve purchased taken in foreign lands that are a mix of folks in western style dress and in cultural dress. Not all of the images have dates but I thought you’d enjoy a trip around the world ala Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days. Please feel free to share images of your family members taken outside the United States.
Photo of the Month
It’s an ordinary 1860s image of a woman seated in a fringed chair in the later 1860s.
It’s what on the back that makes it stand out. There are instructions for having a crayon portrait done. Not a full length one though. The details are for a bust: dark hair, blue eyes, earrings as charms. The presence of these instructions suggests that there is another image of her out there. A framed one suitable for hanging. Perhaps one of her descendants still owns it. I have no idea how this carte de visite ended up abandoned.
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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