It All Starts With a Big Pile of Pictures!

Around March of 2013 I’ll have a new mystery novel coming out featuring a young genealogist who sometimes stumbles upon long-buried family secrets during the course of tracing her clients’ family histories.

My interest in genealogy is personal as well as research for my fiction writing.  When I first began to trace my husband’s side of the family I found the project daunting.  Both grandfathers were avid photographers who had darkrooms in their basements.  The love of the craft passed down through subsequent generations so many, many photographs accumulated in the family trove.  Unfortunately, most were unlabeled and loose in boxes. Task one was to get more info on identifying and classifying old photos.  I’ll share some of what I learned here in hopes it might help others who are staring at a big pile of old photos with no idea where to begin.

ImageLet’s start with the oldest photography forms, which in most family collections is likely to be a daguerrotype.  This early photography method, named for its inventor Frenchman Louis Daguerre, captured an image on a metal plate with a reflective surface, which gives them an almost mirror-like quality.  The photographs were mounted in (sometimes elaborate) cases of differing sizes (conscribed by some fraction of the size of the plate, so they might be called a half plate, a 6th plate or a 9th plate, etc.).   It took a long while for the daguerrotypist to capture an image so the subject had to remain very still for five minutes or more. Sometimes hidden constraints or braces were used to hold them in place.  Consequently in most daguerrotypes the subjects are posed formally and look stiff and unsmiling.

This form was used from around 1840 until the mid 1850s when it was overtaken by the ambrotype (for a later post).  These dates are not absolute, but they’re a reasonable range for our purposes here.

So if you have daguerrotypes in your collection, separate those out and try this:

First off, estimate the age of the person depicted.  Then see how that stacks up against the time range in which daguerrotypes were popularly used (above).  This can sometimes give you a good pool of candidates for identification.  For instance, if a boy in the photo looks to be around 10, and you know from the heyday of the daguerreotype that it was likely taken between 1840 and 1855, it’s probably someone who was born between 1830 and 1845.  Check this against the birth and death dates you have for family members and make a list of all the males who fall into that age range.  You may even come up with only ONE candidate.  Or later you may be able to compare authenticated photos against the one in question, looking for matching facial characteristics to narrow down the candidate pool further.

Sometimes a “best guess” is all you’ll ever get, but put the photos into your heritage or digital scrapbooks anyway, along with a description of your thought processes in reaching your best guess identification (but please do note that it is only a guess unless you have further documentation).  That may be valuable information for future family researchers.

The daggereotype above is from the Library of Congress collection.  It was taken around 1852 and is of an unidentified member of the Calwater Grays, a Pennsylvania Volunteer Militia,

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25 Responses to It All Starts With a Big Pile of Pictures!

  1. RJW says:

    With the proliferation of smart phones and clouds many more photographs will capture family history from many new angles. Until they get as sophisticated as modern day SLR, light will play an important part in capturing a good quality photograph. Be careful not to shoot into the light. The resulting halo effect will make it difficult to recognize the bits and bites in the photograph and your ability to place it in history when the meta data is scrubbed.

    • scribe50 says:

      Digital is great for the where and when, but until facial identification improves, we’ve still go the WHO to content with if we don’t label. Alas….

  2. Anne Marie Witchger Hansen says:

    This is all very fascinating. I am so grateful for Brenda’s perseverance with the piles and piles of family pictures. If it stimulates a mystery story or two, that is a bonus!

    • scribe50 says:

      Unfortunately, I work in spurts, AM. I’ve given up on the idea of having it done and gone to the “do as much as you can” philosophy. The nieces and nephews will have to pick it up someday.

  3. Matthew says:

    Somewhat relatedly,consider the impact that photography had on the history American art. Thomas Eakins is an interesting subject. Some of his work was influenced by the development of the daguerreotype. His portraiture tells interesting stories as well. The picture, the photo, an image is a mere window into something more fascinating. Can’t wait to read your book.

  4. Mendy says:

    I love pictures, this is very interesting! Can’t wait to read your book!

  5. This is fantastic, Aunt Bren! Thank you for taking the time to uncover the photographs and share the information! I look forward to reading your novel. You’re an inspiration!

  6. Teresa Dailey says:

    There must not be any pictures of very small children using this type 🙂

    I’m excited to learn more about this! We’ve come so far in photography technology in such a short period of time. It makes me wonder what the future holds for picture taking!

    • scribe50 says:

      Poor kids that did get photographed got strapped in place and had their heads put in braces to hold them still. Can you imagine?

  7. Andrew says:

    You know so much!

  8. Andrew says:

    I love the photos and your info!
    Thanks!!

  9. LIbby says:

    B,
    Daunting is right! My family organizes photos by way of copy paper boxes…. Piles. No albums. No notes. Digital photos w auto album making is soo nice!

    All your work is appreciated and respected!
    You have the patience of a saint!
    Libby

    • scribe50 says:

      Hey Libby,
      I know the copy box trick. And the shoe box and the shop-vac box. So many photos. I WISH I had patience…but….

  10. Jeff Schreiber says:

    Great blog Brenda, would love for you to sort all of my family pictures when you have time!! Maybe have a mystery or two in there like how did we get so many pictures that are not sorted?

    • scribe50 says:

      No mystery for us here. All of us are accumulators and only one of us is an organizer and she does it only sporadically. The result? Semi-organized chaos!

  11. Mary Louise Schreiber says:

    Wow! Very interesting information about the history of photography. This also gives me a new perspective on photo classification. Thanks!!

  12. Wilma Romatz says:

    I just ran across an article the other day about how to make faux daguerrotypes. How crazy is that?

  13. John Witchger says:

    Don’t think I have any daguerrotypes in my closet or attic. Just plenty of prints that are waiting to be put in albums or scanned. Can’t wait to read your next entries, and your novel. Thanks, Bren.

  14. Joe W says:

    While not a daguerrotype, I recently came across a photo of the Neuremburg Trials during which our uncle, Andrew Wendland, was a guard. The photos shows Uncle Andy on the Left, Herman Goering in the middle, and a second guard on the right. Have you seen this photo in your family archives?

    • scribe50 says:

      Joe, I’ve never seen this photo. Where did you find it? Could we get a copy for the family archives?

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