Photo Detective: Reminisce Over Reunion Photos

By Maureen A. Taylor Premium

Every other year for several decades, my husband’s family has held a reunion at the Basin Harbor Club in Vermont. Although the family’s lost count of the number of reunions, photographs of those gatherings date back 50 years and span several generations. The reunions are still going strong—even my husband’s 92-year-old great-aunt Bette, who married into the family, still participates.

This year’s event, like all others, was a mix of exercise, parties and reminiscences. On our last night there, one of Aunt Bette’s sons surprised the group with a special slide show. His father, Fritz, who died a few years ago, had taken pictures of every reunion he attended between 1952 and 1991. Those slides became a family history centerpiece that evening.

Every slide sparked a unique memory and at least one story from attendees. When the crowd (there were only 35 this year) was unable to identify someone, Aunt Bette helped us out. A younger cousin videotaped the whole presentation, recording all the comments and pictures for future generations.

Close to 50 slides and more than 50 stories later, the group finally went to dinner marveling over the presentation and the perfect quality of the slides. Despite their age, each slide looked good as new. Fritz had taken the proper measures to preserve those pictures for his descendants. He used good-quality film, kept his slides in the dark and rarely projected them. For advice on caring for your own color pictures, consult Henry Wilhelm and Carol Brower’s The Permanence and Care of Color Photographs (Preservation Publishing Co.)

The dinner conversation turned to family artifacts and genealogy. As with most families, heirlooms were scattered among the descendants. Excited by the prospect of reuniting close to 200 years’ worth of artifacts, several cousins suggested compiling a family history. They would use pictures, heirlooms and stories to piece together the family’s story from the founding of the Miller Homestead in East Guilford, NY, to the present. I hope they embark on this project because I’d like to see what this energetic and dedicated group can pull together.

Here are some tips you can use to approach a similar photographic endeavor:

  • Spread the word: Send announcements to all known relatives, inviting their participation. Inquire about the keepsakes in their collections, and ask if you can copy or photograph them.

  • Promote participation: Encourage a small group of interested cousins to work together on the family research. Start by verifying already-compiled data and entering that information into a database. Invest in a genealogy software program that produces and reads GEDCOM files (the universal file format for exchanging family trees), so you can share your findings. See the September 2004 Trace Your Family History, a special issue of Family Tree Magazine, for an overview of software options. You’ll want to select a program that can import pictures and video and sound recordings.

  • Communicate online: Start a family Web site so that distant cousins can post images of their heirlooms. One of my favorite family sites was created by Michael Boyce. His Web site contains images and documents that might be of interest to anyone with ties to the Boyce/Boice/Buys family. Boyce’s photo family tree is sure to inspire you to create your own.

  • Stay on task: Regularly check in with relatives to track their progress. Brainstorm solutions for research brick walls. For expert brick-wall-busting advice, see the October 2004 Family Tree Magazine.

  • Plan ahead: Decide on a date for your family reunion and send out the invitations. Then surprise your relatives with your project—whether it’s a published family history, a multimedia presentation or an interactive Web site.

Given my experiences this summer, I have no doubt that it’s possible to tell a family story a picture at a time. So drag out your old family photographs and start planning. I know where my husband’s relatives will be in 2006: enjoying more tales of family exploits.