Photo Detective: Photo-Sleuthing Supplies

By Maureen A. Taylor Premium

Instead of solving a photo mystery, this week I put together a list of items that no photo sleuth can do without. Make the family historian in your house happy with these tools to identify, organize and preserve family photographs. If you are the photo detective in your household, print this column and leave it for Santa and his helpers. You might end up with the supplies you need to start your New Year’s project.

  • Magnifying glass or photographer’s loupe
    Sometimes, noticing the smallest details can help you solve a picture riddle. Look for tiny clues with a magnifying glass (any one will do) or a photographer’s loupe, a small magnifying device that professional photographers use. You can purchase magnifying glasses at any office supply store, drugstore or chain store such as Walmart. To buy a loupe, try the local camera shop; prices range from less than $10 to more than $50.
  • Cotton gloves
    No matter how clean you think your hands are, each time you handle your photographs without wearing lint-free cotton gloves, you leave behind a little bit of dirt and oil. You can find cotton gloves in some hardware stores, but I prefer to buy multiple pairs from specialty suppliers such as Light Impressions.
  • Pens and pencils for marking images
    As long as you write on the back of your images using the right pencil or pen, you shouldn’t cause any damage. When identifying heritage photographs, use pencils of a soft lead, such as the graphite ones used by artists. Pens for writing on plastic-coated prints need to be quick drying, permanent and odorless when dry. Check packaging to see if writing implements are photo-safe. A “CK OK” symbol on a package means the item meets the standards of scrapbooking magazine Creating Keepsakes. One group of acceptable writing implements is ZIG pencils and markers by EK Success, available in craft stores.
  • Photograph albums and storage containers
    There are some beautiful albums on the market today. Stay away from albums with magnetic pages. Instead, look for acid- and lignin-free pages and plastic overlays made from polypropylene or Mylar. The best albums also have slipcases that protect pages from dust. I’ve seen quality albums in craft stores and online through library suppliers such as Light Impressions and Hollinger Corp. or specialty scrapbook companies. Purchase a copy of Memory Makers magazine to see the wide range of products available for use with photographs. Storage boxes should be made of the same materials as albums and have reinforced corners.
  • Books
    • Care and Identification of 19th-Century Photographic Prints by James M. Reilly (Silver Pixel Press, $29.95). Nineteenth-century photographic paper prints can be difficult to identify because there was more than one way to produce an image on paper. Image colors range from the bright blue of a cyanotype to the yellowish tint of an albumen print. Reilly offers a detailed description of these processes with advice on how to care for images. A pullout chart gives examples of the different types of prints; you’ll want to hang it for ready reference. While the major online booksellers list this valuable volume as out of print, I’ve seen it for sale in smaller bookshops.
    • Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion 1840-1900 by Joan Severa (Kent State University Press, $60). This is the single best source for pictures and history of 19th-century fashion. Severa covers hairstyles; clothing styles for men, women and children; and accessories. Each chapter contains an overview of a decade’s costume history, followed by examples and explanations of clothing worn at the time. You’ll end up looking at the pictures again and again, searching for comparisons between the photographs in your family collection and the examples Severa selected for her book.
  • Scanner
    Scanners are great photo identification tools because they enable you to enlarge features in photographs, copy images, and upload pictures to the Web to share them with relatives. See how other family historians use the Web to reunite with “lost” images by reading one of my earlier columns “Reunite with Family Photographs”. Before you purchase a scanner, make sure it’s compatible with your existing computer equipment, read reviews and ask friends. Most scanners let you save picture files in a variety of formats (jpg, tiff) and come with simple photo-editing software.

Happy Holidays!