Photo Detective: Dating Modern Photos

Photo Detective: Dating Modern Photos

Tips for solving 20th-century photo mysteries.

Recently I’ve received several submissions of unidentified pictures taken after 1930—some as recent as the 1960s. This isn’t the first time I’ve written about 20th-century images in Identifying Family Photographs, but nothing this contemporary. It’s too bad no one took a few minutes to jot down a name and date on the back of any of these snapshots.

The good news is dating and identifying photographs from the late 20th century is a bit easier than those from the 1840s. There’s a chance a relative still can remember the event and people pictured. Even if you’re not that lucky, there are resources to assist you with identification.

Clothing
The length of a women’s dress or skirt—which got shorter throughout most of the last century—can help you decide if a picture was taken in the 1940s or the 1970s. Men’s fashions also changed with the times, adding bold patterns and colors. Accessories like sunglasses and love beads made appearances in the 1900s.

Keep up with fashion using John Peacock’s 20th Century Fashion (Thames and Hudson); Fashion Accessories: The Complete 20th Century Sourcebook (Thames and Hudson); and Men’s Fashion: the Complete Sourcebook (Thames and Hudson). Although children’s styles usually mimicked adult fashion, trends also leaned toward unique outfits for kids. Explore the choices for tots to teens in Children’s Fashions 1900-1950 as Pictured in Sears Catalogs edited by JoAnne Olian (Dover).

Photo Format
I’m astounded when I think about the number of different cameras and films I’ve used in my lifetime. A variety of color and black-and-white formats have appeared and disappeared. Anyone remember disc cameras with their tiny negatives? Standard print sizes for all film makes it challenging to pinpoint a date using the size and shape of a photo. A notable exception: Polaroid pictures. Edwin Land patented his process in 1947, and to this day, the company manufactures film and cameras. If you don’t know when your Polaroid picture was taken, contact either the company’s customer service department at (800) 343-5000 or its technical services department at (800) 225-1618.

Some pictures can be dated by the size of the image and others by reading the code on the back of the picture. This acts as a guide to when the film was manufactured, but won’t tell you the month and day the photo was taken. Other details in the picture will provide a more specific date.

Image Content
Use a magnifying glass to examine the cars, bicycles, toys and other items in your pictures. The search for similar items and information about them on the web and in books and magazines. Those images help you narrow the time frame for your pictures by adding up the dates. For instance, my family kept the same car for 16 years, and it appears in many of my childhood photos. The car gives me a beginning and ending time for those pictures, but it’s possible to determine a more-specific year from the clothing, toys and the age of the children in each photo.

In the 19th century and early years of the 20th century, picture-taking wasn’t common. Around 50 years ago, family albums explode with images from vacations, special occasions and everyday life. Faced with an overwhelming number of photos, many people didn’t stop to label them. Besides, everyone knew who was in their albums—identifying them didn’t seem necessary. But those faces in your parent’s or grandparent’s albums don’t have to remain a mystery. Just consult the tips here to date and identify those pictures before they get discarded.

Before you forget when and where you’ve taken your pictures, label their backs or add captions to your albums. Use a soft lead pencil for paper- or cardboard-backed pictures. For resin-coated prints, which have shiny fronts, use a pen labeled “photo safe” or “archival.” It should have quick-drying ink that’s odorless when dry, lightfast and water-resistant. You’ll find both types of writing implements in scrapbook and art supply stores.

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