Photo Detective: Keeping the Peace

By Maureen A. Taylor Premium

Photographs entertain us with glimpses of the past and trigger long-lost memories, but in this case, one caused a minor family feud. Two of Lisa Wooldridge’s aunts disagree with her about the man in this group portrait—is he the children’s father or their grandfather? Wooldridge has compared these two photos, consulted other relatives and studied her family history. Now she wants an unbiased opinion to end the argument: Is the man in the group shot the same man pictured here with his wife?

Comparing Two Pictures
When you’re not sure whether two photographs show the same person, first date the pictures using family facts and clothing details. Since Wooldridge knows the woman the same is in both pictures, dating one of the images should help determine who the men are. Though this is a solvable case, it’s easy to see why there’s confusion.

The first portrait (top—click to enlarge it) appears to be of an older man and a young woman. The style of her blouse with its wide collar and puffed bodice give the picture a 1900-to-1910 date range. Wooldridge’s aunts agree the woman is Wooldridge’s grandmother—the aunts’ mother—Myrtle Floyd Thompson (born in 1888). But is the man her father (born in 1861) or her husband (born in 1879)?

Myrtle Floyd Thompson was married in 1904 and her father moved to North Dakota in 1902. Assuming this photo was taken before he left, he’d be in his early forties and she’d be 14. If it’s a wedding portrait, Myrtle would be 16 and her husband, 25. The drooping eyelids and graying hair at the temples are characteristic of an older man, so this photo probably depicts her father.

The Wooldridge family also agrees the woman in the group portrait is Myrtle Thompson, too. All the facial characteristics (eyes, nose and face shape) as well as the body posture are the same. Both pictures are of Myrtle Floyd Thompson. Three clues in the group shot determine when the picture was taken and the identity of the man:

  • The littlest girl in the picture, Lucy, died in 1916. The youngest child sitting on the man’s lap was born in 1911, and looks around 2 years old. That puts the time frame for this photo around 1913.
  • The mother and daughter’s clothing confirm the date. This woman’s dress with three-quarter-length trimmed sleeves and long skirt is from 1910 to 1918. The little girl’s long hair styled with a bow from the same era. That contradicts an aunt’s belief that this picture is from the 1920s or 30s when Myrtle visited her father.
  • Though the picture is a little blurry, you can tell both men have similar faces: long with a narrow chin, wide cheekbones and a receding hairline. The man in the group photo is younger, has prominent eyes and fuller, darker hair. If the man were Myrtle’s father (the aunts’ grandfather), he’d be in his fifties with more gray hair, while Myrtle’s husband (the aunts’ father) would be 34.


Helping Hands
–>Although family recollections are usually the best way to identify a photograph, relatives don’t always know who’s pictured. The best way to tell who the men in these photographs are is to locate other images of them for comparison. Based on the evidence I have, I think the man in the portrait of the couple is Myrtle’s father, and the male in the group portrait is her husband.