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5 Clues to Solve an Old-Photo Mystery

By Maureen A. Taylor

Every old mystery photo is full of clues if you know where to look. Let’s break this one down into five steps:

1. Consider the provenance.
Phyllis Reakes’ first cousin gave her this photograph. Phyllis knows the man sitting on the far right is her great-grandfather, born in 1839. That chain of ownership of this photo helps confirm the man’s identity.

2. Look at the faces.

I love looking at these two faces. It appears to be a father and son, who share everything from the shape of their noses to the tilt of their heads when they pose for a picture.

3. Add up the genealogical clues.
Which son is it? Phyllis told me that her great-grandfather had several wives and children. I’d date this photo to the early part of the 20th century based on the women’s dresses, circa 1900-1910. A tentative time frame for the image helps determine which son is depicted and allows for possible identities for the rest of the individuals. The woman seated next to the son to our left could be his wife or his father’s.

It’s important not to jump to quick conclusions about this picture. Depending on when great-grandfather was married for the last time and the age of his wife, those children could be his. Each identity has to be proven.

4. Study the clothing details.
The three young women in the back row wear interesting accessories.

Two have decorated their dresses with ribbons. This could just be a simple way of accessorizing their outfits, without other significance. The woman in the middle wears a long beaded chain around her neck. This was generally worn with either a watch or a pair of pince nez glasses. Either could be tucked into a waistline pocket.

5. Study the location.
Phyllis believes this image was taken in Keiv, Volh, Russia. The studio name isn’t on this image, but by reaching out through social media, she might be able to locate other pictures taken in the same area. It’s worth the search to see what turns up. Photographs have a way of bringing families together. Each of the individuals in the picture likely had descendants. As families grow, these connections are lost. This image might re-connect them.

Identify your old mystery family photos with these guides by Maureen A. Taylor:

  • Family Photo Detective: Learn How to Find Genealogy Clues in Old Photos and Solve Family Photo Mysteries
  • Fashionable Folks: Bonnets and Hats 1840-1900
  • Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album
  • Hairstyles 1840-1900
  • Photo-Organizing Practices
  • Preserving Your Family Photographs
  • Searching for Family History Photos: How to Get Them Now