Photo Detective: Checks and Balances

By Maureen A. Taylor Premium

What do you really need to solve a photo mystery? A few months ago I wrote about a photograph I bought at an antique show. The only information on the print was a photographer’s name and a year. Using those two details, I was able to piece together a few facts using vital records and newspapers identify the man.

A few known facts and a little research can add up to an identification. Here’s a list of clues to consider—the more you can tick off on this checklist, the more likely it is you’ll be able to put a name with a face.

A Family Fable
Showing your photographs to family members is the best way to figure out who’s in a picture. Here’s why: Someone may have heard a story about the person depicted, seen the photo in a relative’s collection or known the person in the photo.

A Label
Any caption is better than none at all, even if it’s only a nickname. Those little fragments of information provide a starting place for research. For instance, an unusual nickname or first name results in an instant ID if only one person on your family tree had that name.

Photographer’s Name and Address
A photographer’s name and address, known as an imprint, puts the photograph in a particular time and place. Then all you have to do is find out when the photographer was in business at that location by using city or photographers’ directories. Compare the photographer’s dates of operation to your family tree—for example, maybe one branch of the family ended up in California in the 1860s, and your photograph bears an imprint of a Sacramento photographer. Find relatives from that family of the right age and sex in your genealogical data, and you could make a match. Verify it by comparing your picture to others of the same person.

Clothing Specifics
Fashion details such as occupational dress or a fraternal pin or insignia also are clues that assist in identification. If one family member was a policeman and the rest were farmers, your photograph of a man in a police uniform could be that ancestor. To learn more about costume evidence see my book Uncovering Your Ancestry Through Family Photographs, 2nd edition (Family Tree Books).

The one thing you’ll need to most efficiently act on all these clues is genealogical information. That’s a valuable tool in family photo research. Knowing where your ancestors lived and when they lived there is one piece of the puzzle; another is being aware of their occupations and interests. Before you attempt to work with your family photographs it’s necessary to have this basic family data. An unidentified family photograph doesn’t have to remain that way. The more you know about your ancestor,s the more you can learn about their photographs—and vice versa.