I saw this yesterday on MyHeritage – Genealogy Basics Chapter 4: Using Photos to Discover More About Your Ancestors: https://blog.myheritage.com/2020/08/genealogy-basics-chapter-4-using-photos-to-discover-more-about-your-ancestors/. I decided to cut it down as the article was a bit over 1,300 words.
by Talya August 6, 2020
If you’ve found old photos of your family members, you’ve struck genealogy gold. There’s nothing quite like looking into the eyes of an ancestor.
Sometimes, family photos will come with complete information, either by way of oral explanation from a relative or scribbled on the back. This information might include when and where the photo was taken, who is featured in the photograph, and other such details.
The good news is, there’s a lot you can learn by studying the image itself.
Get a closer look
What photos can tell you
Photography was invented in the mid-19th century, and at first, it was expensive and cumbersome. Only wealthy families could afford to have their portraits taken, and even then, they would not have done so very often. Until household cameras became common, people normally had their photos taken for a formal occasion only: a wedding, a significant birthday, moving to or from a new home, and the like.
So if you have a formal commissioned portrait of a family member from the early 1900s or mid to late 1800s, the first thing you know about them is that they were probably not poor.
They may have gotten lucky, though. The photographer may have chosen to photograph them because of the context in which they lived or worked, or used them as models. In that case, their appearance in the photograph may not tell us about their wealth, but it may tell us other things — such as the context and environment in which the photo was taken.
Here are some details to pay attention to:
Clothing and hairstyles
Note the type of clothing worn by the subjects of the photograph. Fashions change quickly, so attire can be an extremely helpful clue for dating the photo. How are the subjects wearing their hair? Do the men sport a mustache or beard, and if so, how is it cut? What kind of collar are they wearing? Are the women wearing hats? Broad-brimmed, or short-? What kind of shoes? How long are their skirts? Research the fashions from the time period you think the photograph might have been taken and compare.
Pose, facial expression, and action
What are the subjects of the photograph doing? What people and/or items are they doing it with? If they’re simply facing the camera, how are they posing?
Ages of the subjects
Depending on how clear the image is, you may be able to guess the approximate ages of the subjects in the photograph. For example, if you know that your grandmother is a small child in a photograph that contains a few other children and two adults, it’s likely that the young woman in the photograph is her mother, the young man is her father, and the other children are her siblings. In photographs with more than two generations, you may be able to guess who’s who according to their approximate ages.
Family resemblance is not the most accurate way to identify someone in a photo, since family members may look very different from each other, and details may be unclear or distorted because of the quality of the photo. Still, sometimes it can provide useful clues. You (or a relative of yours) may be able to identify someone in the photo as a younger version of a person documented in a later photo, or from memory.
Digitize your photos
If you haven’t already done so, it’s time to make sure that photograph is kept for generations to come — which usually means digitizing it. In our next chapter of the Genealogy Basics series, we’ll explore how to scan and digitize your photographs and other historical records.