Photo Detective: Tell a Story

Photo Detective: Tell a Story

This charming photograph of a young girl shows how even a simple picture can tell a story when you simply research its content. You can turn any of the portraits in your collection into a tale worth telling by starting with the basics-photographer, type of image, props, clothing and the...

This charming photograph of a young girl shows how even a simple picture can tell a story when you simply research its content. You can turn any of the portraits in your collection into a tale worth telling by starting with the basics-photographer, type of image, props, clothing and the subject of the picture.

Photographer
The imprint Bowers, 96 Market St., Lynn. is on the back of this image, so dating this picture is a cinch using a directory of Massachusetts photographers. On page 325 of Chris Steele and Ronald Polito’s A Directory of Massachusetts Photographers, 1839-1900 (Picton Press, $89.50) are listings for three shutterbugs with the surname Bowers. Only one, Wilder T. Bowers, operated a studio at 96 Market St. Using city directories, the authors determined the studio was located at this address from 1856 to 1866.

It’d be easy to stop with this time frame based on the photographer’s name and address, but a quick search of online census records reveals more information about Bowers: He was successful in an age when many went bankrupt. He owned real estate worth $2,000 in 1860 and a mere 10 years later had increased that to $10,000. In 1860 he stated his occupation as a daguerreotypist, but in 1870, labeled himself a photographer. This change in terminology signifies his ability to transition from one photographic method to another, adapting as new media became available. Census documents also show he was born in 1824 and had several children, including a daughter, Nellie, 11 months old in 1870. She’s listed in Steele and Polito’s book as a photographer in 1895.

Type of Image
Determining the exact type of paper print is sometimes difficult from a scan. It’s important to be able to see the original, measure it and view the color and style of the imprint. All of these details add to the story you’re trying to tell. A brief overview of the history of paper prints appears in O. Henry Mace’s A Collector’s Guide to Early Photographs (Krause, $19.95).

Props
There are actually two props in this picture: the chair and the back brace, which is slightly visible at the girl’s feet. Both of these devices kept her still for the portrait. The chair is an ordinary one for sitting in or holding onto for support. In addition to the brace used for this picture, photographers employed a variety of contraptions to keep their clients from moving and ruining their portraits. You can get a glimpse into the uncomfortable world of sitting for early photographs by reading patents relating to photography. Patent reports contained full diagrams of the devices. Consult American Photographic Patents: The Daguerreotype and Wet Plate Era 1840-1880 by Janice G. Schimmelman (Carl Mautz, $25.00) for more information.

Clothing
The girl’s cotton print dress with an off-the-shoulder neckline, short sleeves and hoop-supported skirt dates from the late 1850s to early 1860s. Other examples of children’s clothing appear in Joan Severa’s Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion 1840-1900 (Kent State University Press, $65.00). The style of the dress and the type and pattern of fabric add details to your story.

Child
The only thing left to learn is the name of the girl in this picture. All the owner needs to do is look on his pedigree chart for a female child born about five years earlier than this photo was taken. I’d estimate this girl was born around 1851 to 1857 and living in Lynn, Mass., a few years later.

With just a little extra research it’s possible to weave tidbits of history into an expanded caption for the image. Use it in your photo album, scrapbook journaling or family story. Fact-based fiction is a literary trend. Try your hand at this technique by constructing an outline of facts, then create characters and situations based on those facts (just keep track of what you know and what you’re guessing at). It’ll add life to your picture collection.

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