Photo Detective: More Than Meets the Eye

Photo Detective: More Than Meets the Eye

In each column, I try to focus on one aspect of identification to help you understand the process of unpuzzling your pictures. Sometimes it's possible to put a name with a face, and sometimes it's not—there might be missing genealogical information or insufficient photographic evidence to compare to known...

In each column, I try to focus on one aspect of identification to help you understand the process of unpuzzling your pictures. Sometimes it’s possible to put a name with a face, and sometimes it’s not—there might be missing genealogical information or insufficient photographic evidence to compare to known family facts.

This week’s submission is a complex photograph. While the image contains identification clues, it also has interesting details that don’t help to identify the picture but are still worth noting. This one photograph reviews some of the lessons covered in past columns. Here’s a chance to test your powers of observation.

One of first things I do when selecting candidates for this column is carefully examine each image for details. With your own photographs, it may be difficult to “see” the clues because you’ve looked at them so many times. So, your first step in working with your family photographs is to pretend you’ve never looked at them before. Start by using a magnifying glass or scanner to enlarge sections of an image. Then, start on one side of the picture and methodically move across the image, carefully examining each person from head to toe, as well as the background. Take notes of everything you discover. Remember that you won’t add up all the clues until you’ve finished your research.

In this picture, as well as your own, you’re looking for a variety of identifying clues: costume, hairstyle, location and facial expression. Some of these clues, such as costume and hairstyle, will enable you to place the photograph in a time frame. Others, such as facial expression, will help you learn something about your ancestors and add to the story you’re trying to tell. Remember that sorting out the evidence in one picture can take time.

Let’s test your photo-identification knowledge by using Barbara DiMunno’s photograph of a mother and children. DiMunno thinks that either her great-aunt Lillian (Clark) Hewitt (1873-1955) or Lillian’s mother, Harriet (Ogden) Clark (1842-1912), originally owned the picture. She would like to find a time frame for the picture so that she can work on identifying the people in the image.

Let’s start at the left edge of the portrait. Near one of the mother’s elbows is the edge of a photographer’s white backdrop. The barely visible foliage and the dirt in the foreground tell us that the image was taken outdoors, probably by an itinerant photographer. While this fact doesn’t help date the picture, it’s an interesting detail. The family may have lived in a rural area visited by a traveling photographer.

Focusing on the main figure in the photograph, the mother, reveals several clues. Her stance— one hand on her hip and the other on the photographer’s chair—reflects a dominant personality. It also draws attention to her tiny waist held in place by the restrictive corsets of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The woman followed the fashion ideal of having a waist small enough for her husband’s hands to touch while encircling her waist. The fact that she wears such an undergarment is a costume clue. According to Support and Seduction: A History of Corsets and Bras by Beatrice Fontanel (Harry Abrams, $19.98), these undergarments were popular from the 1870s through 1914. This fact provides a tentative time frame for the image.

John Peacock’s costume encyclopedia 20th Century Fashion (Thames and Hudson, $34.95) indicates that the mother’s dress, with the full collar and sleeves, resembles dresses worn around 1906. The deep V-neck opening with the white high-necked shirt and tight lower sleeves with fullness at the upper arms also are characteristic of that period. This clothing information suggests the picture was taken between 1900 and 1910. Using a ten-year time frame allows for stylistic variations.

A small infant is the next subject in this family photograph. Let’s hope this picture was taken in warm weather, since the baby is naked upon a folded handmade quilt. It was and still is common to photograph an infant without clothes in order to show off its perfection. If you look closely at the baby’s waist, you’ll see a pair of hands holding it. The woman’s skirt is visible underneath the chair, but there’s no clue to reveal her identity. Unfortunately, it’s also unknown whether the baby is male or female. Finding genealogical records of a child born between 1900 and 1910 could identify the whole family.

The four children in this photograph look to be about two years apart. The three girls wear dresses of similar design and fabric, and each has a locket. The oldest child wears her hair in a topknot much like her mother’s (girls’ attire mimicked women’s fashions). She leans toward her younger sibling, which could suggest that the two girls have a close relationship.

While the mother looks directly into the camera, all the children glance off to the side of the photographer. It isn’t clear what captured their attention. There was probably an assistant attracting their attention with a toy. As every parent knows, there’s nothing more difficult to capture on film than an active child. These four children seem very well behaved for their age; it was probably a combination of a mother’s strict warning and an assistant’s actions that made for a successful portrait.

The final step in photo identification is adding up all the clues to draw a conclusion. In this case, the mother’s costume provides a time frame, yet even with a date for the photograph, DiMunno is unable to determine the family in this portrait. While Lillian (Clark) Hewitt (1873-1955) would be the right age for this portrait, in other pictures, she doesn’t resemble the woman shown here. Through observation and research, DiMunno now knows a lot more about this photograph, even though she can’t name the subjects. If anyone recognizes the people in this photograph, please contact me at

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