Photo Detective:Group Photo ID

By Maureen A. Taylor Premium

The idea of trying to identify the 10 adults and 10 children in this 14×17-inch picture overwhelmed Ginger Rogers. She found it in a trunk belonging to her grandmother Lorena Bagwell. According to relatives, Bagwell once referred to this picture as “The Real Bagwells,” but she didn’t name the people pictured or say what she meant. Rogers wants to find out when this photo was taken to help her figure out who’s who.

Adding to Rogers’ dilemma is the size and condition of the print—she made several attempts to get a good-quality reproduction of the image. First she scanned it, but the image is larger than the scanner bed and one of the children was cut off. Rogers had better success using a digital camera and natural daylight to capture the scene. The spots, discoloration and fading come from exposure to fluctuating temperature and humidity, sunlight, and contact with storage materials. The condition is so bad that one woman in the back is a ghostly shadow, her face and clothing too light to show any details.

Despite the damage, the photo contaqins enough fashion clues for us to date the image. With close to two dozen people in this portrait, it could take a long time to research each outfit. I used this method instead: Look for trim, accessories and sleeve designs that stand out, and date those styles first. Here are three details that caught my eye:

  • The girl standing to the back and side of the woman in black is wearing a dress with small leg-o-mutton sleeves. Her bodice features a triangular inset.
  • The short-haired child standing between two men on the left side of the picture is sporting an outfit with a ruffled, high-collared yoke.
  • A 20-something woman wears a two piece outfit with a striped skirt, white blouse and tie. She’s the most fashionably dressed woman here.

Comparing key pieces (sleeves, collars and ties) of these costumes to clothing reference books such as Linda Setnik’s Victorian Costume for Ladies, 1860-1900 (Schiffer, $29.95) and Joan Severa’s Dressed for the Photographer (Kent State University Press, $60) provided the narrow time frame 1893 to1896. Thankfully, the fashion dates agreed. When they don’t, it’s often necessary to decipher each person’s clothing choice.

Now that she has a date range for the image, Rogers’ can consult her genealogical research to group individuals by family and to see who fits the other details in the portrait. There are two pieces of family information here:

  • The oldest woman is dressed in black, including her large brimmed hat. Rogers thought she might be Ophelia (born in 1828, maiden name unknown), who had seven children with John J. Bagwell before she died between 1880 and 1900. He died around 1874 to 1880. Rogers asked if a woman might continue to wear mourning colors years after her husband’s death. The answer is yes—though mourning etiquette suggested widows wear black for two years, many did so for the rest of their lives.
  • The woman on the far right is surrounded by four children and holds an infant on her lap. To identify this grouping, Rogers should look for a couple who had a baby between 1893 and 1896.

These clues, combined with other genealogical data, give Rogers a starting place. She’s begun breaking down the picture into family groups based on children’s birth dates and ages. There are still a few blanks on her family tree: The Bagwells lived in South Carolina and Texas during the late 19th century. South Carolina didn’t have mandatory civil registration of vital records until 1915; Texas waited until 1903. Rogers will have to rely on data from the 1900 US census, church records and cemetery documents for the missing details.

Other relatives may hold identification keys, too. One thing Rogers hasn’t yet done is show this picture to Bagwell descendants. Once she does that, she could figure out not only who’s in the picture, but also why her grandmother called these people the “Real Bagwells.” <!–

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