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Using Local and Family History Photographs to Tell the Stories of Your Ancestors

Photographic Evidence

Every photograph and caption must be assessed and evaluated just as you would textual documents in your genealogical research. These tips will help to classify and date the images you locate to determine if the pictured subject is appropriate to the date, place, and context observed in the photograph. As researchers, we must always do our own evaluation, seek out original records, weigh the evidence, and come to our own conclusions.

Brady, Matthew B., photographer. Amos Kendall, half-length portrait, three-quarters to left. Between 1844 and 1860. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The first popular and publicly accessible version of photography - the daguerreotype - made it's debut in 1839. This means that any relative who lived into the 1840s, lived into the age of photography. If they lived long lives, it is possible that folks in your family tree, as early as colonial ancestors and veterans of the American Revolution, may have had their picture taken! Such exceptional, early photographs have been the focus of two volumes by author Maureen Taylor, entitled The Last Muster (see links below). Browse the thoroughly researched images in these books and you just might find one of the very first people in your family or community to embrace the amazing new invention of photography!

Daguerreotypes were one-of-a-kind images. Like painted portraits before them, if the subject wanted more than one photograph, they had to sit for each one. In the 1840s, the daguerreotype was on the cutting edge of modern technology, but it was just the beginning of a still-evolving era. As photography's popularity grew throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it became faster, easier, and cheaper to have a picture taken. As the years passed, therefore, the likelihood of an ancestor posing for the camera increased. In the 1850s, ambrotypes and tintypes come on the scene. And by the 1860s, card-mounted carte-de-visites (calling card sized images) advertised the opportunity to reprint additional copies from a glass negative! With the ease of access to tintypes and card-mounted photographs, collecting pictures of family and friends led to the trendy, new concept of photograph albums.

Itinerant photographers visited battlefields, enabling Civil War soldiers to send photos home. They stopped by farms and rural communities to capture the images of houses, properties, and people who could not conveniently visit a studio in town.

In all of these ways and more, our ancestors and their communities became the focus of early lenses, capturing their likenesses for the enjoyment of future generations. Finding, identifying, and understanding the historical value of these photographs is part of our role as researchers.

A. C. Golsh, photographer. African American man, member of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, wearing fraternal order collar and apron. Between 1890 and 1900. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

When you discover a family Bible, marriage certificate, or deed that has the potential to uncover or clarify facts in your family tree, you begin by studying and evaluating that document. Where did it come from? What is it's date? Is it an original or a copy or a transcript? Who supplied the information? Does it fit in the time and place and storyline of other clues you have discovered? And ultimately, is this actually the family or person you are searching for? If the conclusion is that the document is, or appears to be, about your ancestor, then you mine it for every possible detail. One record could provide you with sought-after information that confirms other records and starts you down new research paths.

The approach to embracing a photograph should be exactly the same. Treat photographs like documents. Put them through the same rigorous evaluation and then divulge every detail.

Excellent guides have been written to enable you to maximize the potential of the photographs you uncover. They help you to recognize the physical characteristics of the actual photograph in your hand and to identify the many particulars of the photograph's subject. Among the essentials to be examined are:

  • Type of photograph (daguerreotype, ambrotype, tintype, carte-de-visite, cabinet card, etc.)
  • Fashions
  • Props and backgrounds
  • Context clues
  • Photographer stamp
  • Ownership history
  • And more!

As the detective, you must examine all evidence. Learn as much as possible about whomever donated the picture to the Library of Congress or other repository. Ask how the photo collection has been passed down through the family. Study the original order of photograph album pages and examine other items in the collection. Cite and evaluate your sources. Keep notes about what you discovered and your rationale for any proposed identification or disqualification.

Be wary of photographs that lack appropriate source information. We are all eager to find photographs that will add to the knowledge of our ancestors, but just as we would not want to attach a false birth date to an ancestor, we do not want to attach a photograph that does not actually belong.

Consider proposed identifications to assure that they make sense for the timing and context of the image. Raise flags when you find the facts aren't jiving. Your genealogical research is indispensable in accurately identifying photographs. You may know from your research that your great-grandaunt was born in 1900. Accordingly, you also know that she cannot be the young woman pictured in an 1890s cabinet card, even if it bears her name. A caption contradiction like this can happen for many reasons. It may just be a mistake made by a well-meaning relative who thought there was a resemblance to your aunt. It could also be a commonly seen error in which a name written on the back of a picture might refer to the person to whom the photo was given or the family member who ordered reprints years later, as opposed to the actual subject of the photograph. Irregardless of the nature of the problem, these errant inscriptions are valuable clues for consideration since there is likely some association between the person named and the subject. Track every clue and account for each in a research log for the picture. As your research continues, you will be able to return to this log to evaluate new information as it surfaces.

Genealogical research is ever on-going and so is the search to find and identify photographs. Keep brainstorming. Keep hunting. Keep investigating. The photographs are out there waiting to be found and understood!

A selected list of guides is provided here. Expand on this list by seeking out resources specific to your family, location, or topic.

The following titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content are included when available.

Books

Websites