Photo Detective: Relatively Mysterious
9/26/2009

Readers of this column always have something in common. Although each of your photos is unique (I haven't seen any duplicates yet), you pose similar sets of questions about them. The most frequent one? That's easy: "Which relative is it?"

Working with family photographs and genealogical information is a bit like the matching game kids play. You have lots of material on your ancestors and a group of unidentified pictures. It's up to you to figure out who's who using photo identification techniques like researching costume details and comparing faces with those in other photos. Then you examine your research for likely matches. In both of the following cases, the descendants think they know who's in the picture, but aren't sure.

Which Grandmother is it?

Q. Linda Gerow is convinced this young woman is one of her maternal grandmothers due to the strong family resemblance. Is it Margaret (born in 1901), Ethel (born in 1884), or Lucy (born in 1863)?

A. Her two-piece outfit and the way she's wearing her hair date this picture to around 1900. Ethel would be 16 that year, so she's a likely match. An identified picture of the same woman taken at a different age would confirm the theory.


Which Nathan is it?

Q. Barbara McClenny needs help determining which relative is shown in this color-enhanced copy of a tintype. She's tried to compare the clothing to styles from different time periods, but can't decide if the man is her great-uncle Nathan (born in1842) or her great-great-grandfather Nathan (born in 1809).

A. This man definitely isn't the Nathan born in 1809. By the time tintypes debuted in the mid-1850s, he'd be in his 40s or older. The man in this portrait looks younger than that.

Could it be McClenny's great-uncle? Let's assume it is, and that he was 30 when this picture was taken. Then the image would date from the early 1870s. There's just one problem?his clothing isn't representative of that decade.

The only distinctive clothing detail in this man's outfit is his tie, with its full knot and bold pattern. According to John Peacock's Men's Fashion: The Complete Sourcebook (Thames and Hudson, $29.95) men wore ties of this style during the 1890s into the first decade of the twentieth century. The man's short hair and mustache style also could be from the 1890s. A time frame of 1895 to 1905 would mean that Great-uncle Nathan, born in 1842, would've been in his mid 50s to 60s in this portrait—not the right age for the pictured man. This man doesn't appear to fit the birth dates of either Nathan.

Both of these picture questions are solvable if the owners methodically try to locate additional portraits. Gerow needs only to find another photo of Ethel, while McClenny has a more extensive search on her hands. She needs to scout out images of every person in her family tree of the right age and sex to be a possible match. By the end of the process Gerow and McClenny each will have a picture history of her family in addition to the genealogical facts.

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