Photo Detective: Networking for Photos

By Maureen A. Taylor Premium

Just because you don’t have many photographs doesn’t mean other family members have no photos. Relatives’ photo collections may contain “missing” images of your own family. I’ll never forget the time I walked into a cousin’s house and discovered she had framed a group of unidentified family baby pictures. She didn’t realize that the mystery baby was my mother! These are the only pictures we have of her as a screaming toddler.

When an estate is divided up, photographs are not usually a significant part of the process. Since wills rarely discuss who inherits family photographs, their fate depends on the mercy of interested relatives. One genealogist I know claims that he saved several collections from the rubbish pile by making it known to family that he was interested in photographs.

He also found some things that amazed him. When his family members went to a photographer’s studio, they often sat for a variety of poses in one sitting. These multiple images ended up in the collections of distant cousins. By collecting images from other branches of the family, he is re-creating the photographic history of generations of relatives. By matching photographs and backgrounds, he’s even been able to identify some of the unidentified photographs in his original collection. (For more information on identifying the photographs in your collections, see Picture Puzzles.)

If you lack photographic documentation for 20th-century relatives who are no longer living, try contacting their friends. Mixed into the photographs in your possession are a few images of non-relatives, after all. Those people may be looking for pictures of their family in the same way you are. Since you have photographs of their relatives, they may have similar pictures of yours. This is especially true of close friends who attended school together or who were involved in special events in your relatives’ lives.

Maureen A. Taylor, owner and principal of, is the author of Uncovering Your Ancestry through Family Photographs (Betterway Books, $18.99). In a regular feature on Family Tree Magazine’s Web site, she helps users identify old family photos.