The first step in any investigation is to ask questions; your research will try to determine the answers. Do you have any relatives who might be able to supply additional material or stories related to the photo? Try to record their recollections in case you need to refer to them again later, by transcribing their memories or by using a tape or video recorder. Make sure you keep track of full contact information for anyone you interview. You will want to show them the photograph several times during the identification process in case some new information jogs their memory.
Here are some sample questions you can ask:
- What do you know about the image?
- Who was its previous owner?
- How did it come to be in your possession?
- Is it part of a larger collection?
- Are there any stories associated with it?
- Do you know why it was taken?
- Do you know when it was taken?
- Do you know any of the people in the picture?
- Did a family member supply the identification?
Keep Track of Your Research
In order to draw conclusions based on your inquiries, document your research using a worksheet. This will also help you develop a research plan. You’ll want to include such basic information as:
- Owner’s name: Your name or the person who currently owns the image.
- Address and telephone number: Any contact information that may prove helpful.
- Condition: Is the photograph difficult to read because of mold damage or fading?
- Type of image: Make sure of the photographic process before you fill in this information (see step 4).
- Size: Measure in inches, height x width
- Mounting: Is it on a backing such as thin cardboard?
- Original: Is it an original, copy image or digitized?
- Photographer’s imprint: Does the name of the photographer appear anywhere on the image, front or back? Do you know the name of the photographer because family legend has it that your family always frequented the same studio?
- Props/background: What other elements are visible in the photograph?
- Style of dress: Write a short description of the type of clothing shown in the picture. Be sure to include hairstyle, jewelry and hats—it’s often the accessories that add the final piece of documentation.
Want more photo-research help? You can learn more about photos of Civil War-era ancestors in Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album by Maureen A. Taylor.
Our Family Photo Essentials CD has ideas and advice for creating, sharing and saving your family’s memories.