Photo Detective: In Plain Sight

Photo Detective: In Plain Sight

Look past obvious clues to uncover the real stories behind family photos.

Sometimes your photo ID work is cut out for you even when it seems the answers are right there. Judy Bennett knows where this portrait of the Tift-Mitchell clan, whose ancestors helped found Albany, Ga., was taken: at a family home on Albany’s Society Street. And it’s a bit hard to tell here, but the names of those pictured are written on the image. An open-and-shut case, right? Not quite. Several aspects of this photo raise questions. Exactly when was it taken, and why did these particular family members pose together? It’s an example of how every picture has a story.
 
 
 
Digging Deeper

1. Fading away. Use a magnifying glass or photo-editing software to decipher pale writing.
2. Latest styles. Dresses, hairstyles and accessories will help date the image.
3. Ageism. Reconcile census data with subjects’ estimated ages to make IDs and narrow a date.
4. Posture pointers. A curious pose may be a clue to the person’s identity.
5. Glaring omission. Note relatives whose absence from the image doesn’t make sense.

 

Writing on the wall

The names are faintly written below the brick-edged garden. A photographer’s loupe or magnifying glass can be a huge help when reading faded ink. You also can scan an image, open the digital file in a photo-editing program, and adjust the contrast and brightening controls to enhance the writing. Of the 19 people in this picture, Bennett was able to decipher 10 names. By comparing faces to other family pictures and matching key physical features—ears, eyes, nose, mouth and face shape—she added two more names. The children are still unidentified.
 

An easy time

Developing a time frame for this picture wasn’t difficult. The women’s front-pouched blouses, narrow waists, straight skirts and Gibson Girl hair date the image to between 1900 and 1910, a range confirmed by the men’s high, stiff collars, neckties and short hair. Even the season is apparent: If you look closely, you can see a blooming narcissus or daffodil in the garden and a budding tree in the right foreground. In Georgia, these spring flowers bloom in February.
 
Birth dates of those in an image can help narrow the time period. For instance, the baby on the far left, if identified, would date the image to within a year. I’d guess the oldest girl (sitting on the steps) is in her early teens, perhaps 13 to 15. The caption identifies her as Maria Isabel Mitchell; genealogical research reveals she was born in 1889. Based on her estimated age, this photo would’ve been taken between 1902 and 1904. Walter Mann, the white-haired man on the right standing next to the column, was 62 years old in the 1910 US census (he died in 1915). Nelson Tift, on the far right, was 60 in 1910. Both men were in their 50s between 1902 and 1904—about right for their appearance here. The young men clasping shoulders on the right were both born in 1880, making them 22 to 24 years of age, also likely.
 

Children, please!

Genealogy can help ID the children, too. Bennett should research the identified adults to learn their children’s names and birth dates, then compare the data to the estimated ages of children in this image. This will take time and patience.
 

The posture of three children sitting on the steps is interesting. They’re wearing dresses and hair bows, but mothers likely would’ve admonished girls to sit with their knees together. Perhaps the three kids displaying their drawers escaped their moms’ notice—or maybe these are boys. During the early part of the 20th century, it wasn’t uncommon for boys to wear their hair in long curls tied up in bows, as I’ve noted on Family Tree Magazine’s Photo Detective blog.

 
Missing in action
As important as who’s in this picture is who’s missing. Both husbands and wives are present without their spouses, and interestingly, some here are in-laws. For example, Clara Jane Tift Woolfolk is absent from the photo, but her husband is on the far left. Such details could help determine the occasion for the photo. Bennett initially thought it was a funeral, but the lack of dark clothing suggests otherwise. It could be a simple family gathering or the baby’s christening.
 
Bennett should re-examine her research for clues to relatives’ whereabouts around the time the portrait was taken. She may be able to identify the gathering or even find out one of the written labels is wrong.
 
Only by adding up all the bits of information will it be possible to put a name with every face and officially date the image. I’ll write more about this image and update you on any new discoveries on the Photo Detective blog.
 

From the March 2009 Family Tree Magazine

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