Photo Detective: Finding Photos Online

Photo Detective: Finding Photos Online

Recently, I've received several emails from folks who purchased photos from online vendors hoping the individuals pictured are kin. Is it possible to actually locate a long-lost photograph of a relative? Sure. Stranger things have happened in the world of genealogy. At a photo show a couple of years ago...

Recently, I’ve received several emails from folks who purchased photos from online vendors hoping the individuals pictured are kin. Is it possible to actually locate a long-lost photograph of a relative? Sure. Stranger things have happened in the world of genealogy.

At a photo show a couple of years ago, a friend of mine stumbled across a photograph of the minister who’d married his great-grandparents. He couldn’t believe his luck and immediately bought it. Any genealogist you ask about such research serendipity will mention stubbing his toe on an ancestor’s gravestone while searching a cemetery, or opening a book to the page bearing an ancestor’s information appears. I haven’t heard too many photograph stories, but I know they’re out there.

Finding family photographs is the result of being prepared and knowing where to look. It’s helpful to compile a list of the full name, life dates and hometowns of everyone you’re searching for. For instance, ?George Andrew Smith; 1810 to 1875; Birmingham, England; Boston, Mass. and Cincinnati, Ohio.? This fictional George or your real relative can be found in several ways:

General Search Engines
According to Nelson, “My maternal grandmother and her first cousin (both deceased) have identified the people in the photo as their grandparents, Johan Markus Johansson, with youngest son August.” August was born in 1880 in Sweden, and is about 5 years old in this picture. His mother died in 1899 in Sweden. About a year later Johan Markus and his son immigrated to the United States.

When was the picture taken?
Three years ago, I wrote a column about searching for family photographs on the Web). A lot’s changed since then. Most of the major search engines now have filters so you can look for images without wading through a lot of documents. Use your ancestors name as a search term, remembering you’ll find images but not necessarily digital collections of images.

Digital Library Collections
In the October 2003 Family Tree Magazine, David A. Fryxell wrote about 37 free historical photo databases. The largest online image database is the Library of Congress’ American Memory, with more than seven million images of photographs, maps and scanned documents.

Although not every historical society, public library and genealogical group has digitized its picture collections, many have. Use a general search engine to look for one of those organizations in your ancestor’s town, then check the Web site for pictures of your relative. If that repository doesn’t have photos online, call or write to inquire about photographs in its holdings.

Reunion Sites
Web sites like Dead Fred help reunite families with their long-lost photographs. Find a list of such sites on CyndisList. Need convincing that this technique works? Just read the success stories on Dead Fred.

Auction Sites
It’s risky to buy an unidentified photograph from a Web site like ebay because the person resembles you or a family member. Unidentified photographs ultimately get identified when you connect them to your family through ownership or genealogy, or because you can verify the story behind them. Images that lack any type of association to your family aren’t likely to be relatives, and a resemblance could be subjective. You might have a match if the name or nickname on the picture fits someone on your pedigree chart and the photo was taken in a place where your family lived. You can find a photo of your family on an auction site, but use the site wisely by creating a watch list of surnames and places.

In addition looking for photos of your family, try looking for pictures of the places they lived or of the people who were important to them. My friend already had a wedding portrait of his great-grandparents and the church where the ceremony happened, but the discovery of the minister’s picture add to the story of the event.

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