Reading Photographs

While there is perhaps a province in which the photograph can tell us nothing more than what we see with our own eyes, there is another in which it proves to us how little our eyes permit us to see.

~ Dorothea Lange

I love a good mystery. From my childhood days of reading Nancy Drew to my current fascination with reading good mystery stories and indulging in crime shows on television, I simply adore getting caught up in trying to solve a set of clues. One of the many things I love about my job as an archivist is that I occasionally get to try to solve a mystery. Okay, not really a cool *mystery* like a crime or some unsolved cold case. I wish! But I do run into regular things that come in to us as “unknown” that require a bit of historical detective work. That’s a challenge I enjoy digging in to solve.

The archives I work at deals with a lot of aviation-related items, so we frequently get unidentified aircraft photographs. Thankfully, we have a wonderful crew of volunteers, many retired from spending a lifetime working at the nearby Air Force base, who come in and spend hours identifying aircraft information for us. But the other half of our collections pertain to local and regional history, so we also come into contact with many unidentified local and family history items. Oftentimes, the staff or student responsible for organizing the collection and making it available for researchers gets the task of trying to solve some of these unknowns in the collection. In the spring, I teach a course for undergraduates on working with primary sources in their research projects and presentations. One of the assignments I most enjoy is when we get to working with photographs.

Learning to read photographs is much like reading a good detective story. At first look, there may not be very many clues to help solve the mystery. But sometimes a bit of detective work will help give at least a partial solution to the mystery. By using the type of photograph, items in the photograph, and other sources, a bit of research can oftentimes prove worthwhile in figuring out at least some identifying characteristics. Here are a few of the tips and tricks we use in the archives to help us solve the mysteries of unknown photographs.

What do you see?  This is an obvious but important first step.  What things are in the photograph you’re looking at?  Can they give you any clue as to the date or place the photograph was taken?  If you can identify the kind of photograph you have, that can give you a probable date range for when the picture was taken.  Is it in a case, like a daguerreotype or ambrotype?  Is the photographic material metal like a tintype?  If it is printed on paper, what kind of print might it be?   The Library of Congress has great resources to help with this, including sample photographs and a chronological chart of when different photographic processes were used. Clothing, hairstyles, and objects or scenery in the picture can also help find an approximate date for when the picture was taken. But also look beyond the main subject of the photograph. Sometimes the best clues as to when or where the photograph was taken are hidden in the background or along the edges. This photo of a local business is a great example. We knew from other photographs that were with this one that it was taken in 1905, but by using the calendar hanging on the office wall, we were able to discover that May was the only month in 1905 that started on a Monday!

Why this photograph? Photographs are taken for a reason, so looking at a photograph’s composition can also help in solving photographic mysteries. Why did the photographer chose this angle, this pose, or these items? What about them does the photographer want to show or to hide? What is the context of the photograph and its setting? What happened just before or right after this moment? Is there something missing, things outside the frame of the photo? Here’s a favorite example from my stash of family photographs. Now for those readers who know me personally, it probably comes as no surprise that I have a wee bit of a stubborn streak. One my mother documented in this photograph, where my long-suffering violin instructor was trying to persuade her very stubborn pupil to continue on with her lesson after making a mistake. I like to caption this picture as “Pretty please?”

What else do you have? Are there other photographs of the same people or similar places? Are there letters or diaries or newspaper clippings or any other kind of documents that may help understand the context or subject of the photo? Is there anything in the image that would lead you to other sources of information? One great possibility is to check with a local historical society or archive to see if they have any similar items or other historical materials that may help in your quest. Here is one of my favorite photographs from our collections, an image of four generations of women in a family. Thankfully at some point, someone had identified the women in the photograph, but we didn’t have a date for when it was taken. But, because we knew who was in the picture, we were able to narrow down an approximate time frame by using the known birth date of the youngest girl and the death date of the oldest women, the great-grandmother. As it turned out, there was only a period of a few months when this image could have been taken.

If you are interested in learning more about reading photographs, there are a lot of materials available online. One of the best resources for the conservation and preservation of family photographs and papers is the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NDCC). Also, be sure to find a copy of Maureen A. Taylor’s book, Uncovering Your Ancestry through Family Photography, an excellent resource to walk you through the steps of working with family photo collections. Finally, there are a lot of fabulous genealogy sites and networks available, and the resources they provide are outstanding. Many public libraries subscribe to, so if you are not a member, you can still gain access to the millions of resources they have available as well. Local historical societies and family sites are also great resources to contact for help in identifying photographs and documents.

Reading photographs is a challenging and time-consuming thing to do. But if you are on the hunt to identify family photographs, sometimes you can get closer to your goal with a bit of research. A little bit of luck doesn’t hurt either. But after all, anything you can find out about the photograph will be more than where you started. And if you’re like me and love a good mystery to solve? You’ll get addicted to the process.

Have you found some challenging photographs to identify in your family photograph collection?


Filed under Archives, History, Life

6 responses to “Reading Photographs

  1. One photo that was very frustrating was marked with a date and place, but not with the who. A distant cousin had also worked extensively with the old family photos and was the one who clued me in that it must have been friends of the family – it wasn’t any of our relatives in the picture. That never occurred to me – all the other photos had family members – but it sure did explain why being unable to label it was proving so frustrating.

    Here’s an old photo from my archives – probably taken in the 1920’s. I knew one of them was my great-grandmother’s niece, but it was my distant cousin who identified which one she was.


    • What a wonderful photo! And you’re right – it’s very frustrating to get to a picture and not have a clue as to who or where! I have a bunch of those in one of my albums that no one knows anything about.

      Your photo-a-day challenge is a daunting idea, but the outcomes are lovely! Thanks for sharing your photo and blog!

  2. I was so proud of myself when I figured out the date on this undated photo – – I recognized it as the main street in my hometown (Portsmouth,Ohio). And I had an idea from looking at the cars on the street. But when I looked really closely, I could see all these signs saying “open for business” and one said “no flood merchandise”. And I figured out it must have been taken right after the 1937 flood.

    • Sweet!! I love when something in the background pulls the information together and gives it a time/place. You’ve got some great pictures up on Flickr….. that’s something I so need to do, for home and work!! Did you see the article a while ago in the New York Times about the Cincinnati riverscape photos? I’d love to be able to do such things with some of ours……

  3. Another good mystery I had a few months ago was this unidentified diary from 1861. I hoped maybe I could figure out whose it was by skimming through the entries and hoping the person would mention family members or his/her work or something. I became ever more intrigued as I read, seeing the names of friends he was always going to visit — the Schencks, the Woods, other important Dayton families. Eventually he mentioned his brother being an officer in the army, and finally he told a story where he included dialogue from his father in which the father addressed him by name, “Gene,” and mentioned the family business. Ultimately I figured out the diary belonged to Henry Eugene Parrott. 😀 I was so excited!

    • Very cool! I bet that took some time, but what a great investment in the end! Don’t you wish you could spend that detail on everything we find? Congratulations on the detective work!

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