Photo Detective: The Great Outdoors

Photo Detective: The Great Outdoors

This unusual photograph shows a studio shot of a couple in their outerwear.

Nancie Dalton knows that these two people are her great-grandparents, Mary Amanda (born in 1861) and Joseph Lucia (born in 1846) who emigrated from Quebec to New York State circa 1880. She wrote, “What we are curious about are the clothes. They appear to be heavy and not the typical ‘French’ look.”

In most portraits, people are posed in their best clothing—dresses and suits and sometimes hats—but in this photograph the couple is wearing outerwear over their outfits. The heavy look that Nancie observed is a result of the winter coats worn in the picture. This indicates that the photograph was taken during the colder months of the year.

But why wear heavy jackets in a photographer’s studio? It’s possible that this portrait was taken by an itinerant photographer either outside or in an unheated studio. The plain backdrop in a solid color (the bottom edge is visible in the lower right hand corner) and the single chair are a simple arrangement managed in either location.

There are few other costume details visible in the picture. She is wearing a polonaise—an overskirt with horizontal strips of contrasting fabric and ruffles around the edge of the cut-away section of the skirt. The bottom edge also has a slight ruffle. Her coat is slightly fitted and long enough to cover her hips. At the end of the 1870s and into the 1880s, this style of women’s jackets was popular as opposed to early in the 1870s when coats were shorter. Joseph’s clothing is barely visible. He is wearing loose-fitting pants with work boots. His coat is boxy and double-breasted with a contrasting collar possibly made of fur.

Nancie doesn’t know when Joseph Lucia married Mary Amanda LaFreniere, but their first child was born May 25, 1881, in Clinton County, NY. Since there is no child in this picture, it was probably taken before the birth, most likely right around the time of immigration. Many immigrants sat for portraits before leaving home to present family with copies and then again once they were settled in their new location. Given the date of the photograph circa 1880 in the winter, it is quite possible that Mary was pregnant when this picture was taken.

There are no other clues in the picture such as a photographer’s imprint or a caption to further identify when or where it was taken. In the February 2002 Family Tree Magazine, I presented a few ways to evaluate photographs with regard to their immigrant stories including the oral history of the photograph, photographer’s imprints, picture content and clothing. In Nancie Dalton’s portrait, there is little information the key identifiers are a result of clothing clues and oral history reinforced by Nancie’s genealogical research.

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