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Photographs and the Holidays

by Maureen Taylor

Our old family photographs sit in boxes undisturbed waiting for us to find the right opportunity to identify and organize them. They have an amazing ability to charm even small children with their view of life in other generations. The people and their clothing offer a glimpse at past lives and daily events. They even look different from the photographs we take today in their variety of shapes and colors. So why do they remain unidentified sitting in shoeboxes in closets? Perhaps the task of identifying those images seems daunting in its time commitment. However, this doesn't have to be the case. There are moments when families come together that present a perfect opportunity to bring out those boxes and work on the identification as a team. The next time family members gather for that holiday dinner, set aside some time to reminisce and attach names to the people in those photographs. Who knows, it might become a tradition?

A Little Advance Planning

If you are the family genealogist and also the person responsible for planning and executing the meal, preparing for another activity may seem overwhelming. This doesn't have to be the case. Call another family member and enlist their help with the picture project. They can make arrangements for attendees to bring their own unidentified family photographs and assist in gathering the few things you'll need to make the process run smoothly.

Build a Basic Photo Identification Kit

It's important to have a few items on hand to help take care of the pictures while you are looking at them. Since even clean hands can deposit oils and dirt on the images, it is necessary to wear white cotton gloves while handling them. You can purchase several pairs of white cotton gloves from an archival supplier. Other tools include an adequate number of magnifying glasses, soft lead pencils, and some worksheets. Magnifying parts of the photographs may allow you to see details in the images, the pencil lets you lightly write the identification on the back and the worksheets help you document your discoveries. You can also videotape or tape record the identification conversations, rather than trying to write down all the specifics. Worksheets are available in the back of Uncovering Your Ancestry Through Family Photographs (Betterway, 2000). Use care, so that you don't cause any inadvertent damage such as broken corners or abrasion from rubbing them against each other during handling.

Extend the Invitations

This year instead of just inviting immediate family, ask other relatives if they are interested in joining the activity. Specifically ask them to bring historical photographs and explain what you are going to do. You can even tell them to only bring photographs with them that are more than 25 years old. Unless your family took lots of images, each person will probably bring a small box of images with them. There are good reasons for asking others to participate. Photograph collections contain some surprises.

Photograph collections are usually divided up when family members die and that can result in an unidentified photograph in one collection being identified in another. You'll be surprised how many relatives will be familiar with the photographs in your collection even though you don't know the names and circumstances surrounding the pictures. There may even be similar images of a person taken in the same visit to the photographers.

Have Fun with the Identifications

If just looking at the pictures isn't enough to entertain some relatives and you have time you could sponsor a contest for the participants. After all, each holiday dinner is a mini family reunion, so why not have a few activities to encourage interest in the photo identification process.

  • Baby Pictures: Play a game that revolves around correctly matching the baby picture with the individual in the room or an ancestor on the family tree.

  • Wisest: Present a small prize to the person who identifies the most number of pictures. This can be a certificate drawn by the smaller artists in the family or a real memento.

  • Oldest: You can award another certificate to the person who brings the oldest picture with them.

The point is to encourage participation and keep the family focused on the tasks so that they will continue to help after the afternoon is over.

Add to the Family Genealogy

Just looking at the images will act as visual reminders for long-forgotten memories and family information. This is the type of material that will bring your genealogy to life by adding details about the people you have facts for but not memories of. Older family members may not recall the answers to questions you ask, but when they see an image they may suddenly remember when it was taken and who is represented. Even if the image was taken before they were born, it may be part of their memory since picture identifications are often passed on as oral rather than written tradition. Photographs enable people to reminisce about all kinds of associated events even if they are not depicted in the image.

Copying Photographs

The most difficult parts of the identification process are retaining the identifications and making copies of what people brought with them. You can easily double the photographic history of your family in one afternoon. There are copyright laws that restrict the reproduction of images. If you are making copies for personal use it usually isn't a problem. Should you decide to publish images either in print or online consult the copyright guidelines at the United States Copyright Office or refer to a book on the topic at your public library. This will prevent you from making a mistake that could result in copyright infringement.

There are several things you can do:

  • If you own a scanner, create a separate file on your computer for each image. By creating a digital version you can then share the pictures with other family members. Be sure to have the permission of the owner before sending their pictures to others or posting them on a family Web site. Each scanned image can have a related text file that contains the written information on the photograph. You can also incorporate these images into your genealogical software package.

  • Make photographic copies with a camera. Unless you or someone in your family is a professional photographer it can be difficult to obtain a good quality copy using a camera without a special stand. However you can make a reference copy that won't be good enough to reproduce, but will act as a reminder of what the image looks like and who owns it.

  • If you can find a Kodak Picture Maker system in your area in a store that has holiday hours, you can make direct copies yourself. A complete list of locations is available online at Kodak or by calling 1-800-939-1302.

  • Rent a copier. This is costly, but if you don't have any other way of making copies of the images that people brought with them you might want to investigate the possibilities. Office equipment rental agencies often allow for a short-term contract for a desktop copier. Make sure you rent one that has good image quality control for copying photographs. Be careful not to expose older images to repeated copying. The light and heat of the machine can damage photographs already in fragile condition.

Preserve the Memories

Now that you have succeeded in introducing even the most skeptical relative to the joys of looking at old family photographs, you can integrate the images into your family genealogy. Using the graphite pencil, lightly write brief identifying data on the back of the photograph (never on the front) including the full name of the person (if known) and their life dates. A genealogical software package or a worksheet is a preferable way to keep track of this material so that you can record who identified the image, who owns it, and any stories or observations associated with it.

It is quite likely that relatives will look forward to another chance to go over the images. Family photographs have a way of bridging the gap between the generations by encouraging individuals to share memories and laughter. Preschoolers will ask questions about the people in the pictures and teenagers may stop to listen to their grandparents' recollections. In the process you have created a new way for relatives to enjoy themselves. You can use this old fashioned activity to establish a new tradition choosing to repeat it on special days. Long distance relatives can even participate via email and submit their photographs for identification. It is an activity that reunites family.


About the Author
Maureen A. Taylor, Owner and Principal of Ancestral Connections, combines her background in history, genealogy, photography and library science to assist individuals and institutions with research and project management. She is the author of several genealogical books and articles including the recent Uncovering Your Ancestry through Family Photographs (Betterway, 2000) and a guide to family history for kids, Through the Eyes of Your Ancestors (Houghton Mifflin, 1999). Her columns on genealogy appear in The Computer Genealogist and in New England Ancestors. She is the project manager for www.BostonFamilyHistory.com, a site that lets visitors plan a genealogical research trip to the Boston area.

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