4 Tips to Identify Faces in Old Group Photos

By Maureen A. Taylor

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Joseph Martin has a great photo, a big group portrait. You guessed the problem: figuring out who’s who. He knows the identity of three of these individuals, but the rest he’s not sure about.

Here are four tips you can apply to group portraits in your family collection.

1. Estimate time and place.
Once you know these things, you can figure out who in your family was around at the time.

The place in this case isn’t a problem. The group posed in front of the Belle Isle Conservatory. The Conservatory is part of Belle Island Park, a popular 982-acre island park in the middle of the Detroit River, Mich.

Joseph thinks they posed about 1930. The cloche hats and dropped waist dresses look more like the late 1920s, but then again, not everyone wore the latest styles the moment the new looks were in the stores.

2. Match faces.

Joseph knows the woman in the black hat is Marcyanna Skibinski Kaptur and the man behind her is her husband, Nicholas Kaptur.

To their left in a light-colored hat is their daughter Emily Kaptur.

But who are the rest of the folks? By looking at facial features, he thinks they could be a mix of Skibinski and Kaptur relatives, but isn’t sure.

So who’s in Detroit in this time period and what’s are their age? Those details can solve this mystery.

3. Make a chart!

When faced with a problem like this, create a chart and a collage of faces to make studying single faces easier.

Identify those who could be possibly be in this picture and using a word processing table or Excel, create a chart of how old they would be in 1930. For example: Person’s name, birth year, age in 1930.

Next, use a free photo editor like create a collage. Digitally crop each of the faces out of the picture using the adjustment feature, and put them in separate boxes in the collage. You also can use this technique to do a side-by-side comparison of faces you think look alike as well.

Now armed with the table, the collage and the big picture, study the faces.
Who are relatives of the husband or wife and who’s an in-law?

Start with the youngest and oldest individuals. Look at the group portrait to see if there are husbands and wives as well as clusters of their children. Family members tend to stand together in household groupings.

Doing this will accomplish two things: First, you’ll be able to narrow the time frame for the picture based on the ages of the children and the others. It might be 1927 or 1930, for instance, and the children will help you pinpoint when. There are several children in the 4-7 age bracket. Identify them first. Their parents are probably in the picture.

4. Look for other pictures.
Joseph didn’t say if this is the only picture of the Kapur/Skibinskis in his collection. If he has others, those pictures give more chances to match faces to the group portrait. If he doesn’t, it’s time to try to find other pictures of the people in this scene. Searching genealogy databases for photos is one avenue. Many people attach photographs to their online trees.

Group portraits take time to solve. Go slow. Consider all the possibilities. Put the puzzle down for a bit and then go back to the problem. You might see something you missed the first time around.