top of page

Identify your Old Photographs - Part 1

In my last post, I discussed protecting your old photographs and negatives. Today, I wanted to discuss something near and dear to my heart.


Whether you have inherited boxes and albums full of your family photographs, or discovered them in Grandma's attic, you can be a history detective and solve the mystery of who the individuals are staring back at you from pictures over a century old.

Being a history detective is much like police work. Detectives use chain of custody to preserve evidence. They review clues and context to solve crimes. If you want to solve the mystery behind your family photographs, some of these same tools can help you.

Keep careful track of chain of custody and the context of the photographs or family heirlooms you are researching. Be sure to record what you learn. I cannot stress enough how important this is for any old artifacts or family heirlooms. This includes furniture, jewelry, documents, letters and photographs. Anything at all that has been handed down through generations has a chain of custody. Unfortunately, it is often lost and after a family member dies, someone comes across that item and has no idea where it came from.

There are three important steps to being successful in identifying old photographs.

1. Interview family. If your family member is still living, ASK THEM. Ask who is in that image. If they don't know, ask if they remember who gave them the picture. Take notes. Do not write on the picture with a regular pen, as ink can damage it. There are photo safe pens you can use, but I suggest photo safe tape that you can place on the back and write on. Find a way to organize images and keep them with any identifiable information. Sometimes, my choice is to buy a pack of manilla envelopes and place photos inside. I write on the outside of the envelope. For example: "Photo found in Grandma Midge's things. She says these came from Great Grandma Jeffery, her mother in law." The large envelope gives me more room to record notes and clues of chain of custody.

Although I am focusing on photographs in this series, it is important to ask those questions and record any information for anything being passed down.

If you digitally scan images, be sure to title each image with what is known about it. Pin a note to that handkerchief, put safe masking tape on the back of that dresser or on the bottom of that cedar chest and write where it came from. You can be the archivist and curator of your family treasures.

2. Create a chain of custody record. If no living family member knows where the photograph came from, you can start a chain of custody record and still have clues. Let me give you an example. I purchased an old photograph from an antique store last year. I documented the date I purchased it and where I purchased it. Later, I called back the store and found out that it came from a house with a box of pictures during an estate sale. That was my first clue and I added that to my 'chain of custody' record. Returning to the store, I was shown the box and in it found more photographs that looked like the same family, had some of the same names on the back of the photographs. Several had the same photographer stamps on the back. I purchased everything that I could find that looked like it was the same family. As I researched the family, I found their last name and ultimately located information on a family member who had recently died. I also found that there had been an estate sale. If I hadn't payed attention to where I obtained the pictures and asked key questions, I wouldn't have found that out.

3. Create a record of context. Chain of custody isn't enough when you are trying to discover where the image came from and who is in that photograph. Every piece of information is important. 1) who had it in their possession before you obtained it, 2) what room you found it in and/or what it was stored in, 3) what other things were with the photograph. 4) writing or stamps on the back of the image.

Do not remove a photograph or other family treasure from its context without first recording its context and chain of custody.

If you locate a picture of a man with no writing on the back of the photograph and you don't know who he is but you found it with your deceased Grandma Betty's things, you can use those first clues and the context you found the photograph in to create a chain of custody and context record and guess his identity. 1) Mystery man found in Grandma Betty's home, 2) found in attic, in a chest with other pictures 3) Mystery man photo found with pictures of Grandpa John's baby pictures and christening gown. 4) Another photo with an image of a man that looks like mystery man says on back 'Father'. You could safely assume that the mystery man was your great grandfather, Grandpa John's father. But if you had simply removed the picture of the mystery man and tried to identify it by itself, you could be lost and never know his identity. By noting the context of what was with the photograph, where and how it was stored, you can determine much more information than you would have based on the image alone.

It is so important to pay attention not only where you obtained a picture or from whom you obtained it, but to notice the context that picture was found. Both context and chain of custody will help you identify the subjects in an image.

In my next post, I will share how you can narrow down the date of the photograph and further aid you on your quest to identify family photographs.

43 views1 comment

댓글 1개

Great information. No one will regret doing any of this. I wish I could say I've been doing this all along, but I haven't. And I regret it. Thank you.

bottom of page