Monday, February 10, 2014

Who Are You? How do we Identify People in Old Photographs

One of the hardest things to do in genealogy is to identify people in old photographs.  I have been at this for a while and I have come up with a set of best practices, or at least best practices for me.  They are not in any particular order of importance.
  1. The more the better.  The larger your collection of old family photos the more likely you are to be able to identify who is in them.  
    • Look for the same faces across your collection.  Do the photos faces appear in have some identifying attribute?  A chin, a forehead, the set of the eyes?  Are there notes on some? If one of them says Bill and Jill, even without last names, it's a start.
  2. Who was your source for the photos?  A distant family member?  A distant family member who did genealogy?  A family who lives in the same area as your ancestors now?  Or an unrelated family who was close neighbours to your family in the past? 
  3. If there is a group of people, how are they standing/sitting in relation to each other?  My experience has been that
    • in multi-generation group portraits with in-laws the parents are obviously the oldest and almost always placed front and center.
    • if members of the opposite sex are touching, especially before WWI, it indicates a very close relationship, siblings, spouses, or parents and children.
  4. Date your photos.
    • Date by the style of dress of the individuals.  Women's clothing styles can date photos to within a decade, and often less.  Certainly they can provide an earliest date.  Men's suits are not so changeable
    • The type of the photo.  Tintype, ambrotype, daguerrotype, etc.  Each had it's range of dates of common use.
    • The style of the actual photo itself. Even within a type, certain ways of mounting went in and out of fashion.  This is especially true of Cabinet Cards. 
    • What are the furnishings?  I found out recently that wicker furniture was only popular from the 1890's to early 1900's
  5. Locate your pictures, in other words where were they taken?  Many older pictures have a photographers imprint either on the back or the mount, and very few of these imprints do not include the place.  This can also date photos by when the photographer was in business in that place.
  6. Are there other pictures on the Internet?
  7. Talk to your aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc.  Even if they don't know exactly who is in a picture, they can often give you clues.
  8. Get a facial recognition/tagging program.  The are two that I use are Fotobounce and Picasa.  Often the suggestions they make can give you a clue as to who you are looking at even if you know the identification is wrong.
  9. Cross reference your information.  If you know one person in a group photo, it can give you a "not taken later than" date.  In conjunction with the style of the clothing and the style and type of the photo itself you may get a quite narrow range.  When combined with census records, BMD information, and travel records it can in turn can lead to more identifications.
  10. If you have a network of researchers ask them what they think.  Does your logic hold up?  Explaining your logic to someone else may reveal flaws you made to yourself, and makes it clearer to them why you think what you think, and if they should agree or not.
  11. Put your photos online and available for all to view.  You never know who will stumble across them.
I would recommend Maureen Taylor's blog at Family Tree magazine for the tips and tricks she uses as part of her posts.
So what got me onto reflecting about this?  Well, in the past month I received two separate bunches of photos from the North Dakota branch of the Halls family, from people who did not know they are both researching the same thing.  I will post pictures and explain my logic about my identifications in my next post.

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