Examining old photos

Photography can be its own genealogical specialty. Some workshops I’ve seen offered emphasize clothing styles as a way to interpret the family’s social status or regional placement or even to date the particular photograph.

I did something similar in examining a 1916 Ehrstine family reunion group shot presented on this blog, where members who were continuing the Plain dress of the faith posed at the edge of the group. Those of the more progressive styles of clothing and religion tended to cluster toward the center.

The kinds of photos themselves can help. Tintypes, for instance were popular in the 1860s and 1870s but lingered to the beginning of the 20th century. Commercial studio photography, presumably using large-format glass-plate negatives, thrived in the last decades of the 19th century. And then there are the snapshots, which became readily available once George Eastman launched his Brownie camera in 1900. (Once we’ve digitalized the images, though, we lose that hands-on awareness of the object itself — we’re often left to guess.)

With the commercial studio portraits, I find the folders useful in naming the photographer and location. Was the subject living in the same town? Or did the family travel to the city for something more prestigious? A local historian might have a lot to say about a particular photographer or the time span his studio was open. In trying to sort out one collection, I found the kind of chair used in the shot — to keep the subject still as much as to add an artistic touch — could provide a tentative connection for individuals.

In snapshots, I find the poses themselves can relate emotional content. Who’s looking at whom, how far apart are they standing or sitting, what’s the body language?


You get the idea. Have you done anything with family photos? Any insights you’d like to share? Have you ever attended one of these workshops? And what did you learn?


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