This post is sponsored by The Imaging Alliance; however, all thoughts and opinions are my own.
Old family photos tell the stories of our ancestors. They tell a story of physical characteristics passed down from generation to generation. They tell the stories of special occasions. They tell the stories of everyday life.
If you have been a longtime reader of Are You My Cousin?, you know how fortunate I am to have inherited a large collection of family photographs. My great-grandmother Esther Richardson grew up in the early 1900’s when the release of Kodak’s Brownie camera made photography more accessible (and popular) to the general public.
Esther and her friends wasted no time embracing the new technology. (Fortunately, she saved everything, too!) As a result, I have a sizable collection of loose photos of the family and her friends. Included in the photo collection was a large flocked photo album that had suffered mildew damage. Unfortunately, the photos contained in it had been taken out of the album. While kept together, all sense of family groupings for these individuals was lost. Few photographs in the entire collection were labeled.
I want to note here that family albums are our connections from our family history to future generations. While sending pictures to social media sites might be fun, there is no permanence. The simple notion of putting pictures in photo albums (like our parents and grandparents did) may be among the most important gifts you can give to your family legacy.
For us as genealogy researchers, old family photographs provide important clues to our ancestors’ lives.
We can learn what they liked.
We can learn what their jobs were.
We can learn the identities of other family members.
We can learn who was important to an ancestor.
When traditional genealogy records have been exhausted and failed to give us answers, take a second look at those old family photographs for clues to move your research forward.
Examining Old Family Photographs For Genealogy Clues
Sometimes we only have a single photo to work with or examine, but that one photo can yield valuable clues.
Start with these 6 steps:
- Digitize and “restore” the photograph if needed. I use and recommend Vivid-Pix for editing my old family photos and restore them to their best appearance. This helps bring details out that might have been hidden from years of fading.
- Determine the photograph’s provenance. Where did the photo come from? Who had it before you? How did the photo come into your possession?Knowing how you came to have a photograph or who had the photograph prior to you can help narrow down which family line to start searching.
- Determine the type of photograph you are examining. Is it a cabinet card? A carte de visite? The type of photograph will narrow down the date of the photograph and narrow down potential people in your family tree it could be.
- Research the photographer if possible. If the photograph has a photographer’s name/studio on it, research where and when the photographer operated. This information can narrow down the location where the photo was taken and place that individual in a specific place and time period.
- Examine the clothing and hair fashions worn in the photograph to determine the time period of the photograph. Look closely for any jewelry – possibly – heirloom jewelry worn.
- Explore your family tree for potential identities for the individual(s) in the photo.
See these steps in action in Case Study: 5 Steps to Identify a Family Photograph .
When working with multiple old family photographs, I do things a bit differently. I start by placing the photos out on a table. My dining room table works great for this. To the best of my ability, I place the photos in family groupings.
For example, if I am working with my great grandmother’s photos, I know there is a high probability, those photos represent the Richardson and Elliott families of south central Virginia. The problem is I do not always know which family the individual belongs to or if an individual is actually a family member.
To help determine which photo belongs to which family, I take a close look at the photo itself:
- Can I place individuals in the same family based on physical characteristics?
- What props were used in a photo? Are the same ones appearing in more than one photograph? This could indicate the photos were taken in the same studio.
- Is there any distinctive jewelry being worn? Is it an heirloom piece? If so, that can place the photo in the correct family group.
- Are the photos the same type and age? Are you looking at a cabinet card or a “paper” photograph? If you have photos from different time periods, you may be looking at more than one generation of a family.
Once completed, I then examine the individual photos as outlined above.
Keep in mind not everyone in your old family photos is actually an ancestor. Individuals in those photos could be friends or neighbors and not related to you at all.
Just like we gather information on individuals appearing alongside our ancestors in the traditional genealogy records (census records, wills/estate records, etc), we can – and should – do the same thing with individuals in our family photographs. These individuals were important to your ancestors.
Enlist Your Family’s Help To Learn More About the Family Photo – Even If They Have No Interest In Genealogy!
When I meet with a “new” cousin to interview him/her about the family’s oral history, I always start with a photograph.
Photographs spark conversations.
We as family historians can spark more conversations at home and at family reunions simply by displaying family photos. One quick and easy way to do this is to print out copies of your family photos – both old and recent. Place them in a pretty bowl in the living room or wherever people gather.
Going to a family reunion? Display your photographs and ask family members to share any stories they might have.
Helping Future Genealogists & Family Historians Tell The Stories
Family historians spend a lot of time searching for and identifying our ancestors photographs. With the ease of photo taking today, future researchers should have no trouble finding our family photos, right?
Let me ask you a question… Just where are all YOUR photographs? I’m referring to all of those photographs of your family, your children, your grandchildren….
Are they hidden on your smartphone? [Be honest. How many hundreds are on there?]
Can you find that special picture of your grandchild’s first Easter you want to share? Or are you lost endlessly scrolling through your smartphone?
Let’s get those photos off of your smartphone!
- Set up an online photo album of your photos as a great way to share them with family. Do this with current photos and also with your old digitized family photos.
- Print your favorite photos and display them at home in frames or photo books.
- Be sure and label your photographs! Your descendants will thank you.
Lastly, consider having a family photo taken with a regular (or real) camera for sharper, clearer photos to pass on. Do you have a child or grandchild in sports? Have a friend or sports photographer catch those action shots. Action shots reflect details like the swing of the bat or changing facial expressions a smartphone can’t capture.
Now It’s Your Turn:
- Pull out your old family photos and take a closer look! What new genealogy clues can you find?
- Share your successes and your questions in the Facebook Group.
Other Post of Interest:
- Tips & Resources To Find Old Family Photos
- Restoring Old Family Photos – A Vivid-Pix Tutorial
- Preserving Your Family’s Historic Photographs