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Using Photos in Your Research

by Lyman D. Platt, Ph.D.

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:

Properly Labeling Your Photographs

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:
  1. Date of the photograph
  2. 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 date.
  3. The ages of the individuals.
  4. The circumstances around which the picture was taken.
  5. Who took the photograph.
  6. If there is an original negative, where it is located.
  7. If the photograph is a copy of an original, where the original is located.

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.

Using Photography to Document Your Research

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.

Getting Photographs from Outside Collections

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.

How Photos Can Help You with Your Research

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.


About the Author
Dr. Lyman D. Platt has extensive training in a number of modern languages and has taught hundreds of seminars on ancient handwriting styles. Employed at the Genealogical Society of Utah for seventeen years, Dr. Platt assisted in many of that institution's international efforts, including the extraction program, microfilming, and coordination with government and private agencies in preserving and using records. He has been at the forefront of the development of genealogical databases since their inception. He is recognized in many national and international publications of contemporary authors, having published twenty-eight books, thirty-four booklets and technical manuals, and written some fifty articles of genealogical interest.

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