American Ancestors New England Historic Genealogical Society - Founded 1845 N.E. Historic Genealogical Society Seal View Your Shopping Cart Join NEHGS
  • Every Picture Tells a Story

    Maureen A. Taylor

    Most family photograph albums include double portraits of male and female adults. You may find that some are marked with names and dates that help you place them in your family history. Whether the subjects are identified or not, each image can tell a story or provide clues. In addition to identifying the subjects in the pictures, researchers will also want to find out when and where the photograph was taken and uncover details about the events surrounding the image. Becoming your family photo "Sherlock Holmes" is easy if you know what questions to ask and where to look for clues.

    Begin by taking the time to rediscover all the double portraits of ancestral couples, friends, and siblings in your family photograph albums. Before you start on this piece of detective work it is advisable to don a pair of clean white cotton gloves for handling the pictures. Have a magnifying glass on hand for discovering minute details. Keep a worksheet or log describing each image so you can reference clues that need additional research.

    The first steps in your research involve finding out who is in the photograph and when it was taken. While there are undoubtedly numerous photos of relatives among your family photographs, there are probably many images of friends, neighbors, and other associates as well. Be especially careful with portraits found in albums as many young men and women collected images of famous personalities. That distinguished portrait you have been trying to identify may be of royalty from a distant land or stage personalities of another era.

    Contact Relatives

    Show both identified and unidentified pictures to as many relatives as possible. Doing so increases your chances of identifying that mystery relative or finding out the story behind that funny picture of Aunt Ethel wearing a party hat. You may be unfamiliar with a particular image, but a relative, who could also have photos from the same event, may be able to identify the subject(s) and recall some details. One unknown picture could suddenly become significant as you discover it was the wedding portrait of your great-great-grandparents. Take copies of your photographs to every family event and show them off. You may learn something new about the picture, no matter how old it is. You could also try consulting a wider circle of relatives via the Internet by posting an image online in a photo reunion site, family home page, or by asking for help on a message board. Check Cyndi's List under the category “Photographs and Memories” for a list of photo reunion sites and try the larger surname message boards such as GenForum to find “lost” cousins.

    Photographer’s imprint

    You will often find the name and address of the photographer printed on the border or on the back of a portrait. This is a valuable clue because it can place the image within a time frame. By consulting city directories, you can trace the years a photographer was in business and discover when they operated at a particular address. You might try contacting a local historical society to see if they maintain files on the photographers that worked in their area. The website of the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y. has an online database of photographers that can be useful, but the information is often incomplete. A better source is Photographers: A Sourcebook for Historical Research, edited by Peter E. Palmquist (Carl Mautz, 2001), which contains an annotated bibliography of photographers around the world. You can then order their books or articles through the interlibrary loan department of your public library. 

    A Thread of Evidence

    One of the most important clues in a photograph is the clothing. The shape of a woman’s sleeve, the cut of a man’s coat, or the selection of a hat or other accessory can help you date an image within a few years. Clothing can even tell you about the occasion for the portrait. 

    Unidentified subjects

    Unidentified subjects
    From the collection of Maureen Taylor

    For instance, in the above portrait, the woman is wearing a veil and holding hands with a man. Both the pose and the costume clues identify it as a wedding portrait. Identifying wedding portraits as such can be tricky since not every bride could afford to purchase a white dress to wear just once. In addition, women’s magazines of certain eras suggested that brides wear colored dresses instead of white to appear fashionable. The woman pictured selected a very detailed dark-colored dress decorated with elaborate patches of beading that she could later remove. The style of her dress is consistent with women’s clothing of the 1880s with center buttons and draped skirt on the side because of the bustle. The best source of information on clothing in the nineteenth century is Joan Severa’s Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans & Fashion, 1840-1900 (Kent State University Press, 1995).

    Are there props in the picture?

    Sometimes the simple details in a photograph provide clues. A woman once told me that a handkerchief held by a couple signifies a deceased child. While I have not been able to confirm that story, the presence of flowers in nineteenth-century images usually was significant. Victorian women studied books like The Language of Flowers and followed directions about using blossoms as a way to communicate. If you recognize a particular blossom in a picture, you might discover something about the relationship between the people in the portrait.

    Unidentified Subjects

    Unidentified subjects
    From the collection of Maureen Taylor

    Props may provide clues or they may open up new mysteries. When you look at the picture above of a couple holding onto a piece of paper, what do you see? Is it a letter being passed from one to the other or perhaps a marriage certificate?  The pile of books on the back table may signify an educated couple. Could the paper be a diploma? We will probably never know, but it is fun to guess. Props ranged from a single flower to an elaborate setting with furniture and a backdrop.

    How are they posed?

    You may be able to determine the relationship between a man and a woman in a photo by the way they are posed, but it is best not to rush to conclusions. For instance, in the portrait of the young married couple we see two individuals looking off into the distance rather than at each other. They appear rather stiff and show none of the intimacy of a newly married couple. If the woman wasn’t wearing a bridal veil and holding hands with the man, you would have difficulty deciding the exact nature of their relationship. Of course, just the experience of having a picture taken made some people uneasy. Now reexamine the portrait of the two people with the document. See how close they are standing. It is unlikely that they were instructed to do so by the photographer. Their body language indicates that they share close personal space either as a married couple or as brother and sister. 

    Unidentified Subjects

    Unidentified subjects
    From the collection of Maureen Taylor

    Let us look at a third photograph for comparison. In this example, taken around the turn of the twentieth century, a couple actually shares a chair. The man is seated and the woman rests on the arm of the chair with her arm intimately placed behind the man in uniform. This suggests that they are married, engaged, or dating. On the other hand, it is possible that they are relatives. This type of pose usually suggests a close relationship and is fairly typical for the time period. As individuals became more comfortable with the camera, photographers began to imitate the candidness of amateur photographs and studio portraits became more relaxed.

    When was it taken? 

    By talking with relatives, researching the clues presented in the images, and reexamining the portraits for relevant details, you might discover the picture is associated with a particular event. Part of what makes each family photograph collection unique is the composition of the collection. Different families take pictures of certain events and ignore others. For instance, some collections are full of school portraits, but lack baby and wedding pictures. Other people have series of images related to religious occasions, such as baptisms and First Communions. What families chose to document with photographs usually indicated what was important to them and the role that photographs played in the family. One family, for reasons unknown, collected a significant number of post mortem images.

    Most couples had their portrait taken when they became betrothed or around the time of marriage and posed again when they reached a significant anniversary. For example, this portrait of an older couple taken in the 1890s suggests a special occasion. If this couple were married in the 1840s, photography in the form of daguerreotypes was not always available and convenient.  But by the time of their fiftieth anniversary in the 1890s, affordable portraits were available in most locations, and they decided to have their picture taken.

    Unidentified Subjects
    Unidentified subjects
    From the collection of Maureen Taylor

    Use Your Genealogy

    As you make new discoveries about a single image, be sure to refer to your family history for clues. Once you have compared all your photo research on a portrait to your family history, you might find that you have uncovered a long-lost portrait of someone on your family tree or even found a picture of an “unknown” ancestor.

    While this article concentrated on portraits of male/female couples, there are of course pictures of pairs of men and women in family collections.  David Deitcher in Dear Friends: American Photographs of Men Together, 1840-1918 (Harry N. Abrams, 2001) explores the Victorian concept of friendship and how it was represented photographically.  Men and women developed close friendships and expressed those relationships by exchanging keepsakes, letters, and taking photographs together.

    As you learn more about the pictures in your family, you will be learning about your “missing” photographic heritage. Remember that photographs are as important to your family history research as census records and vital records. Besides, you might find out who you look like!

    All images property of the author.

New England Historic Genealogical Society
99 - 101 Newbury Street
Boston, Massachusetts 02116, USA

© 2010 - 2014 New England Historic Genealogical Society