At a recent family gathering, I met a woman who was amazed that an unidentified photograph could be a valuable piece of family history and that it could be identified. She looked at me with astonishment and confessed, “Oh no, I threw them out. I wish I’d known.” It’s hard to imagine that this charming picture of a Dad and his child could end up in the trash. You can almost hear the father saying, “Look at the camera.” Every day someone somewhere throws out ancestral pictorial bounty. It doesn’t have to happen. All it takes to prevent the senseless loss of photographs is a little understanding.
Follow the Clues
Each photo tells you things about your ancestors that aren’t written in a book or document. From how they wore their hair, to how they posed for pictures. Watch for their photographic tell much like card players in a high stakes game. People have their camera faces, tilting their head a certain way, a particular smile or the way they stand. It’s the little things that help us know them as people. Some families always pose in the same place in the yard or like to preen in front of their cars. Photo habits tend to hang around, but can help you identify who’s who.
This child’s mother likely took other pictures of her on that day and at other moments as well, maybe even an album full. This is all that’s left. I found it in a box of unidentified pictures at a photo sale.
If your relatives never left a name on the back of a photo it might be because they knew them well and didn’t need the reminder of who they were. It could be those nameless faces are people you need to know too. Before you toss them out answer the following questions and then take action. Begin by asking family if they know who’s who using telephone, email and social media for starters. Then dig in and try to discern details.
Who Took It?
There’s no photographer’s name on this picture, but if there were it’s possible to learn more about him or her. A photographer’s address often includes a place. Establish when a photographer was in business by researching them online. Finding information on the photo studio online might come with an added bonus—other pictures of your ancestors posted by distant cousins. You might even discover a captioned version of your mystery photo.
Unfortunately, the mother (who likely took the picture), father and child in this lovely summer image are unknown but it’s still possible to put it in a time frame. If there is a snapshot in your collection try to figure out if you have any other pictures taken on the same day by matching up the setting and the people for starters then think about who’s behind the camera. Your snap happy relative might be your great grandmother taking pictures with her shiny new Brownie camera circa 1900. You’ll be seeing your family through a child’s eye.
In this case, it’s clear the way Dad’s is gesturing at the child that her Mom is trying to capture a timeless snapshot of her daughter.
A candid picture might show other buildings, your grandmother’s backyard or even street signs. Knowing where it was taken can be a short cut to figuring out who’s depicted. Only one branch of your family may have lived in a certain location. If so, it might be one of them. ‘’
What are they wearing?
Their personality shines through by the way their clothing choices—stylish, conservative or old fashioned. The Mom dressed her child up in the latest fashion complete with a ruffled bonnet. Dad’s wearing a very stylish summer straw hat with a ribbon banded around the crown. He wears his Sunday best suit for this family outing.
Aunt Lil may have always worn her favorite hat while your grandfather wore his best suit the one from his wedding also intended to be his funeral suit. Occupation, cultural identity and economic circumstances also influenced what people wore.
Work clothes marked the man (or woman). Props brought into the studio or supplied provide clues as well. Immigrants often honored their origins in cultural dress at weddings and funerals by wearing special attire. Rich or poor most individuals dressed for the photographer. Women in far-flung areas of the country and the world often knew the latest Paris fashions and modified the styles to fit their budget and location.
Where Was It Taken?
Look on the photograph for details about where it was taken. There are few clues to location in the child’s picture, but that’s not always the case. Use the photographer address as a guide. There were traveling photographers but most stayed within their community or nearby.
Why Was It Taken?
Even if you know who’s in a picture, try to figure out when they posed. That photograph might represent a key moment in their lives. A visit to the studio was part of documenting family milestones from birth to death. Immigration, family reunions, and outings were also photographed. Sometimes individuals went to the studio with friends as an activity and exchanged pictures, just like high school seniors used to.
When Was It Taken?
Once you know when and where the photo studio operated and verified the clothing, you can estimate a time frame come with a list of possible answers to who’s in the photo.
This picture may be a complete mystery but the clues add up to tell the story of one family’s experience with photography circa 1900. It may not seem like much to go on, but consider the next step—your family history.
If Mom took that image in 1900 and the baby is just walking then it was likely born between 1898 and the early 1900s. Most babies walk between 10 and 18 months. A quick study of you family tree could reveal a limited number of female candidates. The lack of any other children may indicate this little girl is their first child.
All of the answers to these questions bring you closer to telling the story of a picture and your family. Each story is a precious piece of your family history. Putting each of those together is like sewing a quilt. One block of fabric doesn’t create one, it’s all the blocks together sewn together with thread that holds the whole piece of art together. Each photo is a block, the thread is how the story weaves them together and the piece of art is you, the current generation.
Save the life of a photo today by looking at it in a new way and researching its story. Your descendants will thank you for giving them the pictorial context of their lives.