Photo Detective: Mistaken Identity
9/27/2009

Vicki Gibbs' family photo collection contains multiple copies of one photograph—but no original. Sometimes the history of a photograph is like a game of telephone. The person who owns the original makes a copy for a relative and identifies the picture. That person then makes a duplicate for another cousin and relays the identification. This can go on and on. The basic facts stay the same, but along the way the identification information can be confused—just as the sentence passed from person to person in the game of telephone becomes muddled. Of course, it's possible that the owner of the original image never knew who the photograph's subject was in the first place.

Some of Gibbs' family members think the serious young man in this picture is Hardy Rhodes Sr.'s father, Ben. But Gibbs knows this genealogical data is incorrect. She thinks the picture is Hardy Rhodes Sr. (1820-1896). Hardy was actually born to John and Martha Rhodes, and Ben was Hardy Rhodes Sr.'s son. Gibbs believes that the identification is off by only a generation; however, she circulated the image at a family reunion last summer, and no one could verify the identification. Unfortunately for the Gibbs family, both identifications are incorrect.

The clothing clues and age of the young man clearly date the portrait to the 1880s. His snug-fitting jacket in no way resembles the loose men's sack coat of earlier decades. In the 1880s, men started wearing tight jackets with small lapels buttoned to show only a small section of the collar and tie.

The age of the man pictured also eliminates Hardy Rhodes Sr., who would have been in his 60s by 1880. This man pictured is only in his teens or early 20s. Although he has very little facial hair, he appears to be growing a mustache in the style popular in the 1880s.

It's possible that this is a portrait of Hardy Rhodes Jr. (born 1861), because his age fits the date of the photograph. Yet, this young man doesn't resemble Hardy Jr., who had dark hair and eyes. The portrait might depict Hardy Jr.'s brother Ben (born 1867), instead.

The wear and tear on the image suggests heavy handling. Abrasion left scratches in the soft emulsion, and there's even a water stain in the lower left corner. These are signs that the portrait was important to the family, but over time the identification has been lost. The family has four options to try to positively identify this portrait:

  • The family should look at its genealogical records for males of the appropriate age in the 1880s.

  • Gibbs' relatives should re-examine all family photographs for facial similarities. The picture shows a handsome young man with a small nose, thin lips and striking light-colored eyes (either blue or green). Somewhere in a relative's collection, the family might find another photograph of this man. They also should try to locate photographs of Ben Rhodes.

  • Tracing the provenance or ownership of the picture might lead the family back to the right branch on the family tree. For instance, who gave Gibbs her copy, and where did that person obtain the photograph? The family should continue questioning the origins of this copy until the trail leads them to the original picture.

  • Posting the picture on an online reunion site, such as DeadFred or AncientFaces, or on a family Web site increases the visibility of the picture and the odds that some distant cousin will recognize the face.

And if any of you readers recognize this picture, please contact me at mtaylor@taylorandstrong.com

Find out how to submit your own picture for possible analysis by Maureen Taylor. E-mail her at mtaylor@taylorandstrong.com.

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