Photo Detective: researching Settings
9/25/2009

Most submitters to this column ask for help identifying or dating a picture, but occasionally a reader has different questions. Barb Groth knows this image depicts her grandmother's family. She even can date it: Since the baby on his mother's lap was born in 1907, the picture was taken about 1908. Groth wants to learn more about the photograph—the setting, the clothes and the picture-taker—so that she can write about the image in her scrapbook.

In order to tell the story of a photograph, you need to focus on the details such as clothing, the subjects' poses and the setting.

Clothing
Almost every library has books on clothing history, so it's easy to find out about the our ancestors' outfits. For example, the boy standing between his parents is wearing a sailor outfit called a Russian suit. I found one like it in American Dress Pattern Catalogs, 1873-1909 edited by Nancy Villa Bryk (Dover $10.95). Little boys wore these suits beginning at the turn of the century. This boy's mother might have bought the suit, or she may have sewn it using a pattern such as McCalls' 2336—Boys Russian Suit with Knickerbockers (short pants), available in five sizes for 15 cents.

The girl's dress resembles ones from the Sears Roebuck 1906 catalog. You can see them in Children's Fashions 1900-1950 as Pictured in Sears Catalogs edited by JoAnne Olian (Dover, $14.95) Similar ruffled-yoke (or white lawn) dresses sold for $1.15 to $5.00. Her short boots cost approximately $1.

Sartorial history books such as John Peacock's 20th Century Fashion and Men's Fashions (both published by Thames and Hudson, $29.95) help you discover whether your ancestors followed fashion or ignored it.

Poses
Understanding the relationships in a picture isn't simple. In this portrait, the children are clustered around their mother. The boy in the Russian suit is close enough to touch her dress. But was this due to the children's nervousness or the photographer's instructions? Probably a little of both. The father stands a bit away from the rest of the family, but leans toward them, creating a unified group. Everyone appears a little tentative about sitting for this portrait, a sign that they weren't used to having their picture taken.

As look at your pictures, remember what family members have told you about the people in them. Can you see reflections of their personalities? Pay attention to their expressions, how they're posed and where they're seated.

Setting
No doubt this is a formal portrait with a serious purpose to capture the family together. The photographer chose simple yet sturdy furniture and drapery. Heavy chairs and curtains, and a backdrop (visible over the mother's head) painted to resemble a living room lend an austere quality. Based on the props and backdrop, I'd say this photograph was taken in an established studio by a professional photographer.

It's hard to find information on such photographic props and backgrounds. In the early photography, artists who painted theatrical backdrops began doing the same for photographs. Itinerant photographers often used simple white cloth as backgrounds.

When Groth adds up what she knows about her family with the details in this picture, she'll be able to weave a story for her scrapbook. If you look broaden your desire to name and date a picture to encompass other clues in family portraits, you might find the thread of a story—one your ancestors were trying to tell in images, not words.

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