Looking through old family photo albums can be a fun way to explore your family history and remember happy times in the past. But when you find older photos, it might not be immediately clear who the people in those pictures are or when the photos were taken.
Nowadays, you can tag people on social media photos and everyone will know who they are. However, people in the past didn’t have that luxury – and you likely can’t depend on your ancestor’s organizational skills! Identifying people and places in unknown photographs is an adventure, and this guide will get you started.
If you’re looking for a way to restore your old photos for easier research, Image Restoration Center is here to help! Contact us to bring your favorite antique images back to their former glory.
In the day of early photographs, people thought of them as a path to immortality – and it still holds true today. Photography gives you a window to the past that allows you to peek into their lives.
Here are just three things that you can do by looking into the tales behind old family photographs.
For most of us, “family” stops at the grandparents. Since most of us do not have living great-grandparents, it can be hard to imagine family members older than our grandparents. Researching old family photos can help you fill out your family tree and allow you to identify who your ancestors really are.
A family tree isn’t just a list of names arranged by generation. Family trees can also consist of interesting facts about your ancestors – their work, their life achievements, and other notable things. Who knows, you might be related to a noble from centuries past or even a celebrity from the 1930s.
A common thread between us and people in generations past is that we love taking photographs at big events. Looking through antique photos can tell the tale of our ancestor’s weddings and family parties. Even if you have no living relatives that were there, the photographs you gathered may tell you an interesting story nonetheless.
Most elders – grandparents, great-uncles, great-aunts – have lived through a lot, and likely have a lot of great stories about your family. If you’re interested in hearing these stories, you can try showing them images of a past family gathering or event. This can be a good conversation starter and can jog their memory so they can remember their past better.
Say you found an old family album that was tucked away in the basement for decades. Looking through it, you don’t recognize a single person in the photos. How are you able to identify people in photos and find out when they were taken?
These six steps will help you identify old photographs better.
Old family portraits are fragile and the decades likely weren’t kind to them. Instead of taking them out for research, you can scan them into digital form before you start identifying them. This gives you two benefits:
Scanning a photograph also helps you later on if you’re planning to show it to relatives who live far away. Instead of sending them a low-quality photo taken from your smartphone, you can send high-resolution scans that can be examined much easier.
Sometimes, the clues can be staring you right in the face. Vintage photos may have notes that say where and when they were taken. Some photos may even have the name of the photographer written down. If you have the photographer’s name you can track them – or their descendants – down and see if they recorded their photoshoots or have any clues that can help the identification process.
Even if many unidentified photos don’t have notes, their type can help you in identifying the age of old photographs. Different styles of photography were common in different times, so you can get a time frame of when it was taken by looking at the type of photograph. For example, daguerreotype portraits were very common in the 1840s and 1850s while a photographer during the Civil War may use a carte de visite.
Another important factor when you identify photographs is where it was taken. If the picture was taken in a town or city, you may be able to piece together its location and time period by looking at store signs. Even if there are no written signs, the architecture style can also narrow down where and when the unidentified family photographs were taken.
Objects and other details in photographs can provide important clues.
Take a car, for instance. If you recognize the make and model of a car caught in the photograph, you can assume that the photograph was taken after that particular car model has been released.
If you see newspapers and calendars in the photo, You can likely pinpoint the photo’s time period down to the date.
Since photos were often taken for special occasions, researching details on certain events can be a good idea. For example, if your grandfather was photographed at a World Series baseball game, you can try looking up the date and location of that particular photograph by researching about the game.
Once you have the when and where answered, you can then move on to the who. If the photos were only a couple of decades old, you can simply ask your parents or relatives about every person on them. Who knows, maybe it was them in the photos as children! Even if they don’t remember the details, they can point you to a person that might know more about it.
Identifying the people in other photos further up the family line can get challenging. If even your grandparents don’t know or can’t remember the details, you’ll have to dig much deeper. You may need to forward the photograph to your distant cousins or family historians to see if they, or their elders, can provide a clue as to who was in those pictures.
So now you have all the pieces. You know when and where the photos are taken, as well as the names of everyone in them. Once you have a collection of old family photos all figured out, putting them all together is a matter of creativity.
You can present these photos to your extended family in any way you want. For instance, you can create a scrapbook that groups all these photos by year or generation. Or maybe you create a short slideshow video that summarizes the story of each family member caught in the photo. The search itself can also be an interesting tale to tell relatives.
Whichever way you present your search results, it’s sure to give you and your family members more insight and appreciation for your shared history!
Your family members and your own genealogy research aren’t the only ways to dig up the tale behind your old family photographs. If you’ve run into a dead-end, consider following these top tips when you identify photos.
Your photograph may not feature any discernible landmarks or street signs, making it hard to pinpoint an exact location. However, if you can narrow down the location to the town level, it can make your job easier.
You can try asking local historians or tour guides for more information on where and when the photograph was most likely taken. City directories and historical archives may also help you in the search
Clothing styles can be an effective identification aid. Women’s fashion is especially easy to date because the trends change more often compared to men’s clothing. If you know what to look for, you can determine when a photo was taken down to the decade
Genealogy research communities can be helpful for your search. Some communities even make a hobby out of finding photos and identifying the people in them.
Try sharing the photos you found with them alongside any information you may have. Their genealogy researchers may provide helpful advice and set you on the right track to identify your photo.
Identifying unknown photos isn’t easy – and identifying a damaged photo is even harder. Image Restoration Center is here to help you restore your photograph so you can recognize who’s who in it much easier! Our Photoshop wizards and historians can turn back the clock and make your old photo look like they were taken yesterday.
Identifying photos of your ancestors can be an interesting way to bond with your children and other relatives. Moreover, the family tree you built can increase your appreciation for your family’s history.
If you’ve recently found old family photos that need restoring, Image Restoration Center is the best way to do it