Using Online Resources to Solve Photographic Mysteries

By Robin Wallace

Family history, and in particular family photos, were a very important part of my upbringing.  When I was a child, both of my grandmothers loved to tell me stories about my ancestors, and I treasured the hours we would spend pouring over old family photographs.  At the time, I did not realize how lucky I was to have access to these photos, especially photos that were often identified.   But I am sure they helped to develop my love of photography, and I have spent many a happy afternoon perusing old photographs in antique stores and at flea markets. Sometimes they need to be rescued (and end up coming home with me), as I hate thinking that someones loved ones are lingering in a dusty box, forgotten and uncared for.

More often than not, antique photos pass through time unidentified, their sitters and subjects a mystery to be solved.  The Filson certainly has its share of unidentified people and places in our photograph collection.  People often ask me if The Filson is interested in receiving donations of photographs of unidentified persons.  And the answer is a resounding yes, especially if the sitter is from the Ohio Valley region.  There is a still a great deal of information that such photographs can provide to us, and they can be quite useful to researchers of all types.  But there is no denying that identified photographs are the most desirable of all,and I encourage everyone to label their family photographs now, before the names and places become lost to the halls of memory.

Unidentified woman from The Filson collection

I recently had the pleasure of attending a lecture by Maureen Taylor on unearthing genealogical and historical information from photographs.  Taylor is a self-proclaimed “photo detective,” and has previously been employed as a librarian, a curator, and a researcher for public television.  She is now an independent researcher who writes books and articles on historic photographs, and gives lectures and workshops on photographs, history and genealogy.  Taylor offered many insights into the elements in antique photographs which could date a photo and could possibly reveal who and what are depicted in the photo, providing valuable clues for researchers.  Some of these elements include dress, hairstyle, furniture, and photographic studio props. Taylor gives an example of her research methods and analysis in her online article “Photography Changes Family History” at the Smithsonian’s Click! Photography Changes Everything web page.

Taylor also talked about the usefulness of placing photographic mysteries online to tap into the public’s knowledge to identify people, places, and things.  The websites deadfred.com and ancientfaces.com were two sites that Taylor recommended for submitting and searching family photographs.  And she herself is involved with a similar project in Britain, whatsthatpicture.com, which uses the power of web publication, the Flickr photo storage and sharing website, and Twitter to discuss and solve these mysteries.  These venues, as well as blogs, county history websites, and genealogical websites have all become places where individuals can tap into collective knowledge to identify photographs.

Several years ago, I stumbled across a rare find of my own while perusing a website on Russell County, Virginia genealogy.  I noticed a photograph with my great-grandfather’s name in the title.  Upon closer inspection I realized that it was a photo of his family in front of their home in Russell County.  The name and email address of the person who submitted the photo were listed, and I decided to contact the man to see if he was a relation.  As it happens, he was not; he was an antique dealer.  But he did have an entire box of photos of my family!  The box included photos as old as the tintype of my great-great grandmother Mary Fletcher Wallace, and photos as recent as my father and uncles’ high school class pictures.  Needless to say, I quickly purchased the box of photographs, and my relatives are now safely back in the family.

My great-great grandmother Mary Fletcher Wallace

My great-great grandmother Mary Fletcher Wallace

Filson Historical

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