Over the past two weeks I have looked at many family photos as we prepared for my mother-in-law’s funeral, and it reminded me of all the clues that are hidden inside each photograph. Many times we inherit or are sent photos by other family members. Most of the time there is no indication of who is pictured in the photo or how they are related. Sometimes one or two individuals are known, but the rest are a mystery. There are many things inside photos that can help to date them, provide clues to where they were taken, and tell who is contained in the photographs.
The details in the photograph can provide clues. Look at the type of clothing worn by those in the picture. A trip to the local library may help in identifying the fashions at certain times. If the individual is wearing a uniform it can reveal many different hints. Uniforms often point to a particular date. They can also lead you towards military records to find more information. You can also look for sports uniforms. The uniforms themselves have changed over the years and clues to a date may be evident. If a sports uniform is present it may also be fruitful to look in the local newspaper at the time. Often those involved in sporting activities are featured in local newspapers.
Products pictured in photos can also be helpful. The labels on items can identify a time frame in which that design was used. The make and model of cars pictured in photos will likely pinpoint to within a decade the date of a photo. There may also be signs present in the photo that can pinpoint a location and help to identify a date.
Many photographers place their name on the photo, either on the front or the back. Researching the photographer using business directories from that time can give a clue to when the photograph was taken. It can also provide clues as to the location of the photo.
When determining who is in a photograph, start from what you know. Often families are grouped together within photographs. Photographs are also often taken at family events. Weddings can provide both evidence of who was living and of family members. They may also date both the wedding and the photograph. The same is true of graduations, deaths, and other significant events. The individuals pictured will be placed at a particular place and time, and that may help with your research. You may also identify family members that you didn’t know existed and this can provide clues to add family members not previously known. When death dates are not known, a family member can be validated as still at a point in time from a photo.
As you review the information on historical photographs, some ideas on how to improve your photographs for future generation may arise. Recording the dates of photographs and who is pictured in them is extremely important to your descendants. The ability to identify individuals in photographs is often lost in one generation. Label your photos! It is also very useful to label the location and date. Writing on the back of the photo is very useful since photos are often taken out of the books where they are captioned.
Photos are an invaluable genealogical asset that bring to life our family members, give many genealogical clues, and provide richness to the family history experience that few documents provide. Take time with your family, your parents, and grandparents to label and identify photos. The legacy you leave to your children will be immeasurable.