The blessing and the bane of genealogy is in the old photographs
that lie hidden away in attics, closets, drawers, neighbors' homes, and
in local histories, libraries, museums and archives. If the author has
2,000 photographs cataloged in his Platt Family Records Center, he also
has at least half that many that remain uncataloged and unidentified.
In this article, I cover important information about using
photographs in your genealogical research:
One of the most critical needs in almost all families is to properly identify
photographs, because little Julie, age 2, can look a lot like little Debbie,
age 2, after forty years of faded memories. When you identify photographs,
take care not to destroy them in the process. Note that writing on the back
of some photographs will damage them. Depending on the quality of the paper,
a pencil, pen, or other means may be appropriate. You should be make some
or all of the following notations:
- Date of the photograph
- Names of the individuals in the photograph, in the order in which
they appear, recorded in such a way as to not confuse anyone at a later
- The ages of the individuals.
- The circumstances around which the picture was taken.
- Who took the photograph.
- If there is an original negative, where it is located.
- If the photograph is a copy of an original, where the original is
It should always be noted when a professional photographer took a picture,
so that his archive or collection can be evaluated for additional family
pictures. To locate information about 19th century photographers, try
taking a look at the City-Gallery
Web site. You can post a query on their 19th Century Exchange, and someone
who reads your message may be able to help you.
In genealogical research, photography can be used for more than just
showing what people looked like. For example, you may want to take a picture
of an ancestor's tombstone and include that photo with your documentation
of the individual's death. When taking pictures such as these, it is important
to note information such as the date and location. In the case of a tombstone,
you would want to record the location of the cemetery, as well as the
location of the tombstone in the cemetery.
Many of the tombstone pictures I now have in my possession represent
a unique record because the original tombstones have been replaced with
newer ones, been lost to time, and in some cases the lettering has faded
on the originals even though the photographs retain a vivid recollection
of what was once there.
Last year when I was taking my family to see the old Gunlock Cemetery
near where I live, they particularly wanted to see the tombstone of Sarah
Sturtevant Leavitt. I had taken a photograph of her tombstone twenty years
earlier and remembered it was near the western fence under a cottonwood
tree. It was no longer at that place. Finally we found it in the middle
of the cemetery. It had been moved and from all appearances was in a place
it had always been. After I got home I pulled out the photograph and reviewed
it. Sure enough, the tombstone had been moved. It would appear that sometime
in the last 20 years that part of the cemetery had undergone some remodeling
activity and it was moved to preserve it.
Photographs are also great for making copies of documents. When you
do this, be sure to note where the original documents are located. I have
in my possession fifty photographs of a census taken in one of the Mormon
colonies in northern Mexico in 1892. There is no census for Mexico for
that period. These photographs were a unique census for those colonies;
however, they were copies taken from an agricultural census by the Department
of Agriculture of the Mexican Government. Many people have tried to find
the originals because some of the photographs are blurred. To date no
one has been able to do so because there is no indication of where the
census is housed. Research in several buildings and archives belonging
to that Department have turned up nothing. Dozens of families, consequently,
cannot be properly identified from this photographic copy. The moral from
that story is that it's important to learn the best possible way to take
photographs of documents, so you can get the best possible results.
In addition to the photographs that you take with your own camera, you
may be able to find and get copies of photographs from other resources.
For example, if you find microfiche or microfilm copies of family histories
or documents about your family, it may be possible to have images from
them transformed into hard copy photographs, depending on the policy of
the organization that owns the microfilm.
In this way I have found tombstones of ancestors in England that are
housed in the walls of or floors of famous churches. Old homesites have
been preserved in this way as well and can be copied from microfilm or
microfiche and made into lovely pictures for the family wall, an updated
family history, or a scrapbook about a particular ancestor.
Finding microfilm like this, or even hard copy books or photographs,
may or may not happen in the course of your regular research. Just be
sure to check in all of the likely places, such as museums, libraries,
and historical societies in the area where your ancestors lived. Larger
libraries and museums may also have collections that could be useful to
your genealogical research. For example, if you were looking for a photograph
of a Civil War soldier in your family, you could check in the photo
database of the Military History Institute. You don't know what you'll
find until you look.
One of the important aspects of using older photographs in your research
is that they may help you pinpoint family members at a specific place
in time. For example, family gatherings have always been a time to take
photographs. A family photograph taken in the mid-1800s may show a great-grandparent
of the nuclear family of that time. That would place in time a person
born in the mid-to-late 1700s and is a pearl of great price whenever found.
Such photographs may also help to confirm the death of certain individuals
and the presence of others that had not been previously known to exist.
This is as true of pictures taken today as it is of those taken two hundred
years ago. Thus, we need to identify our own photographs so that our history
is not forgotten. Comparing a child to that same person at age 20, to
that same person at age 40, to that same person at age 80 can sometimes
be very difficult. The facial characteristics can broaden, the hair can
be lost or turn white. Deformities of one kind or another caused by sickness,
accidents and so forth may make one wonder if it's the same person. Except
for the careful recording on the backs of some of my own ancestral photographs,
I would never recognize a couple of my 3rd great-grandmothers in their
later years when compared to pictures of them at an earlier age.
Photographs can also add a great deal of history to otherwise boring
dates. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a picture of a family
standing in front of their old log cabin, surrounded by work tools and
animals, wearing their daily dress, with a certain type of spectacle,
corncob pipe, apron, or rocking chair can enhance the family history enormously.
Finally, it should be noted that our throwaway generation is creating
a generation of photographs that may not last even through our own lifetimes
let alone into the next generation. Some of the negatives and pictures
I took when I was a young genealogist have almost faded into non-recognition
at this point. We must preserve what we have, using high quality materials
in order for it to last.