Photo Detective: Learn about the Photographer

Photo Detective: Learn about the Photographer

Kris Valentine's relatives remember her now-deceased grandfather, owned a camera taking pictures. Valentine thinks he took this mystery snapshot in the 1930s. She found two copies of it in her grandmother's photo box—this one was plain and the other was in a heart-shaped frame. Did Valentine's grandfather take this...

Kris Valentine’s relatives remember her now-deceased grandfather, owned a camera taking pictures. Valentine thinks he took this mystery snapshot in the 1930s. She found two copies of it in her grandmother’s photo box—this one was plain and the other was in a heart-shaped frame. Did Valentine’s grandfather take this photo, and is it possible to figure out who this woman is is? That’s this week’s challenge.

Sometimes it’s helpful to learn about the photographer before studying the clues in a picture. Valentine told me her grandfather lived with his brother, mother and father in Pittsburgh during the 1920s. A quick check of the US census verified that, but with a slight name change. Valentine’s grandfather, whom she knew as Edmund, appeared in the 1920 census as 9-year-old Edwin.

Taking pictures, his childhood hobby, was a popular pastime for young boys in the 1920s because cameras cost only a few dollars. Unlike today’s standard 4×6-inch prints, pictures in the early 20th century came in various sizes—that sometimes indicates the type of camera used. This picture measures 1-5/8×2-1/2 inches. Several cameras produced images that size, including one marketed to kids: Ansco’s Buster Brown.

Comparing the image to the fashion illustrations in Stella Blum’s Everyday Fashions of the Thirties as pictured in Sears Catalogs (Dover, $14.95) can help assign a date based on this woman’s clothing and hairstyle. That will help determine Edwin’s age at the time of the snapshot and may lead to an identification. Short bobbed hair was the style of the 1920s, but by the 1930s, women wore their hair in longer, waved styles like this woman’s. She’s wearing a simple sweater with trim along one side of the neckline, a decorative element also common in the 1930s. It’s possible Edwin took this photograph as a young man in the 1930s.

So who is she? The fact that one of Valentine’s copies of the picture is in a heart-shaped frame suggests a romantic attachment. From her smile and relaxed pose, it’s apparent she feels the same way about Edwin. She’s not much older than he was and could be a girlfriend, a neighbor, a cousin or his future wife, Ada. Comparing this picture to known images of Ada is the next step. Contacting relatives might turn up photographs of other family members to use for matching.

If that doesn’t work, Valentine might never know who’s in this photo. It’s an unsolved mystery, but along the way she’s learned more about her family from researching her grandfather’s photo habits. That’s a valuable insight into his younger days. <!–

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