Monday, June 6, 2011

Frequently Asked Question : How Can I Identify My Family Photographs?

How many of us don't have a shoebox of photographs that we've inherited from our parents/grandparents that have absolutely no names or information on them?   The subjects of these pictures seem to reach out to us, begging to become named individuals once more.

This is a question that is being asked more and more in the Local History department.  Researchers arrive armed with their precious photographs in hopes that by merely showing them to me, I can somehow miraculously identify them.  I wish my magic wand was that powerful...

I recommend that you tackle this problem from a couple of different angles.  First, seek out relatives, even distant ones, that may be able to tell you who some of your subjects are.  These relatives may even have the same photograph but with ID.  Use your "leave no stone unturned" mentality when looking for living kin.  Contact those you know about by letter, telephone, or e-mail.  I personally prefer telephone - lots of people don't like to write letters and e-mail is rather impersonal.  Seek out those relatives you don't already know by studying collateral lines to yours.

The beauty about living in the 21st century is that we can digitize or scan our photographs so that the originals never leave our possession and they can be transmitted instantly by e-mail.  So, take the time to scan the photos that you are trying to ID, at a recommended resolution of no less than 300 dpi for good quality, less if you want smaller-sized files. 

While you are seeking out relatives, you can also solicit feedback from other sources.  Following is a list of suggestions for "posting" your photographs for identification:

  • If you know where the pictures may have been taken or where the subjects may have been residents, submit them to the appropriate county webmaster for the U.S. GenWeb project.  They may place your images online where anyone may view them.  Be sure to provide contact information so that anyone with ID or questions may contact you directly.
  • Contact the genealogical and/or historical societies in the area of interest and ask if they would post them either on their website, on display in their facility, or even publish them in their quarterly.
  • Contact the nearest library and/or archives with a genealogical collection who may be willing to post copies of your photos in their facility.
Secondly, make sure to analyze your photographs for anything unique - costume, jewelry, insignia, surroundings.  There can be some major clues in something as simple as the suit type or the hairstyle.  Another clue to identifying a time period is to establish what type of photograph it is...a tintype, cabinet card, ambrotype, etc. 

We have several useful books in our collection that address these issues and provide visual examples:


There are also online resources, many of which can be found by using Cyndi's List of Genealogy Sites on the Internet. 

Lastly, I would suggest that the best way to identify your family's photographs is by learning as much as you can about its members.  Genealogically speaking, do your homework by using good standard research practices, and chances are you will uncover enough information to help you solve some of your photographic mysteries.  This is especially true if you are attempting to ID a family unit.  Learning more about ages, gender and family structure could be very useful.

If you have a lot of pictures to work on, plan to become a photograph expert, learning types of photos, era clothing, hairstyles, and jewelry.