Walt Whitman and Your Old Family Photos

By Maureen A. Taylor

Walt Whitman, 1854, Library of Congress.

What could a famous man have in common with your picture collection? It turns out, plenty! Whitman (1819-1892), an American poet, journalist and essayist, had picture problems you’ll find familiar.

In 1888, surrounded by images taken of Whitman during his life, his friend Horace Traubel asked for details about a particular one. Whitman couldn’t recall when, where or who took the picture and remarked,
“I have been photographed to confusion.”

According to the Whitman Archive, Whitman sat for thousands of pictures in his lifetime. He was likely the most photographed man in America. On that day in 1888, Whitman couldn’t identify many of the facts of those pictures in his studio. They were too numerous for him to say when they were taken.

His problem is one common to many of us today. We take pictures all the time, following in the footsteps of ancestral photographers who aimed to capture family in studio portraits and snapshots.

Not everyone went to the studio just for family milestones. Whitman recognized the power of photography to freeze life moments allowing us to look back on the past. In some cases, you may have pictures that document a person from birth to death. There were individuals who, like Whitman, enjoyed being photographed, and much-loved children that parents took to the studio for pictures.

Unlike Whitman, we have tools to help us figure out when pictures were taken. Try these tips:

  • Estimate the age of a person in a photograph. You’ll be able to group images by childhood and the teen years without too many problems.
  • Create a picture timeline of their life. A new tool on the market is You upload the photos, attach them to a person and a significant detail and within minutes you have a timeline of facts and images on which relatives can comment.
  • Not sure when a picture was taken or why? Research the photographer using phone books and city directories, ask family if they remember, and study the details in the background. My downloadable article called Hidden in Plain Sight will help you spot new clues.

Who’s the Walt Whitman in your family collection—i.e. the most-photographed family member?

I’d love to see him or her! Send a picture of your “most photographed” ancestor to this blog following the instructions in our “How to Submit” guidelines.

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