How to ID Strange Faces in Six Kinds of Old Group Photos

By Maureen A. Taylor

Whether an old family photo has two or 20 people (or more), it’s considered a group portrait. When you find one in your collection, it may generate a groan rather than a cheer. Solving those types of picture mysteries is a challenge and a some might say a curse. You have to figure out the identity of all of those people!

Let’s look at several types of group portraits.


Sporting Groups

This group of tennis players posed between 1870 and 1880. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Our ancestors participated in sports: tennis, baseball, basketball and football, to name a few. When you see an ancestor with equipment or in uniforms, you might need help figuring out what sport was being played. Start by looking at city directory listings for clubs and organizations in your ancestor’s hometown.

Family Reunions and Gatherings

Family group portraits cover everything from picnics to weddings to family reunions.

Joseph Martin’s family gathered at Belle Island Park outside Detroit. In my Four Tips to Identify Group Portraits, you’ll find techniques to sort out who’s who in a family gathering photo. Figuring out time and place and matching up faces are just parts of the puzzle. Use a chart to track how old people were in relevant years, then use the picture as bait to get cousins involved in the search.

School Pictures
I have one and you might, too—a class photo. While you might not remember all the names of your classmates, posting the image on social media can help you renew friendships and connections. If it’s a class photo from an earlier generation, social media is still a good option. Photographers sold copies, so it’s likely you’re not the only one with the picture.

Work Photos
A group portrait might be several people posed at work. Use your family history research to determine where your ancestor found employment. Census documents and city directories are a good beginning.

Organizational Dinners
Fraternal organizations and social groups often gathered for dinners in hotels. These yard-long pictures are often rolled up in a box. You don’t necessarily need to know the names of everyone in those pictures, but it would be great to find your relatives. Looking for their faces in the crowd requires patience and a good magnifying glass.

Military Images
Men and women in uniform often posed for big group pictures of the people they served with. Some are informal snapshots taken by one of the group while others are formal pictures to document their unit.


I’m still trying to identify these women. If you know of any women who served in the transportation corp at Montgomery Air Force base in World War II, let me know. This is one of five snapshots I have of these women.

Identify your old mystery family photos with these guides by Maureen A. Taylor:

  • Family Photo Detective: Learn How to Find Genealogy Clues in Old Photos and Solve Family Photo Mysteries
  • Fashionable Folks: Bonnets and Hats 1840-1900
  • Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album
  • Hairstyles 1840-1900
  • Photo-Organizing Practices
  • Preserving Your Family Photographs
  • Searching for Family History Photos: How to Get Them Now
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