Organize Your Family Photos
9/27/2009

So you've inherited boxes of family photographs—now what? It's easy to become overwhelmed by a large collection of images. Yet, each collection tells a family's story—if you know how to unravel it. Here are a few steps used by curators to approach those shoeboxes of images with excitement rather than with trepidation.

1. Survey the collection.
Take a quick inventory of what's in each box, and answer these questions:

  • What families are represented?
  • Who's in the pictures?
  • What's a general time frame for the collection based on identified images and the photographic method (such as daguerreotype or tintype)?

2. Determine the provenance of the collection.
Establishing the collection's provenance or history of ownership can help you piece together its past and identify the images. For example, knowing who owned the pictures could help pinpoint other surnames represented in the collection. Start exploring ownership patterns in your family photographs with three easy questions:

  • What do you know about the collection?
  • Where did it come from?
  • Who owned it? (Note the last owner and as much of the collection's history as you can recall.)

3. Notice similarities and differences.
Most family collections contain both identified and unidentified images. Instead of immediately focusing on the unknown pictures, study the identified ones. Make a list of known individuals, or annotate your family tree. I like to use a highlighter on family tree charts to mark who's represented in family pictures.

spread out those identified images and compare them to the unidentified images. Look for facial similarities or multiple images of the same person. Pay attention to backgrounds and props. Family members often visited the same photo studio and sat for individual portraits at the same time. Look for numbers on the backs of the images. If one photograph has a 105 on the back and another has a 106, then the pictures probably were taken on the same day.

Each identified photograph provides an additional detail about the collection and can lead to other identifications. For instance, if there are several photographs of your aunt Jane, then you might find pictures of her husband or children in the same box.

4. Identify one image at a time.
After you've done the initial survey and compared photographs, it's time to focus on one unidentified photograph at a time. Examine each one for clues—photographic method, photographer's imprint, clothing clues and facial features. Try to develop a time frame for the image, and group the images by date.

5. Label your pictures for posterity.
Label each image using a soft lead pencil. In each caption, include the full name and life dates of anyone pictured. For additional labeling techniques, see the Photo Detective column in the October 2003 Family Tree Magazine.

A box of photographs can open up new avenues of genealogical research, break down your brick walls and provide photographic evidence of your family's past. Receiving a gift of family photographs is a bit overwhelming at first, but I guarantee it's a present you'll cherish forever.