The National Institute for Genealogical Studies

LEADERS IN ONLINE GENEALOGY EDUCATION

The National Institute for Genealogical Studies - LEADERS IN ONLINE GENEALOGY EDUCATION

Post-Mortem Photography

Photographing the Recently Deceased

Post-mortem photography, photographing the recently deceased, may seem like a rather macabre Victorian era practice. Post-mortem photographs were still being made, though less frequently, during the early years of the 20th century up through the present day.

Photography: Clues Pictures Hold, Editing, Digitizing and Various Projects

Recognizing post-mortem photographs is not always easy. In most cases, the deceased are photographed lying in bed or propped up on a chair or sofa, appearing to be asleep. The poses of the deceased were usually orchestrated so that they appeared as natural and life-like as possible.

The dead were not usually photographed in a casket until the very late 1800s or early 1900s. Some memorial portraits featured an array of flowers surrounding the deceased. Memorial portraits are easy to date because they were generally made in the home immediately after passing.

With our Photography: Clues Pictures Hold, Editing, Digitizing and Various Projects course you will learn about examining photographs and identifying important details.

Who has Grandma’s Photo?

 Family Albums, Friends and Neighbors

Obviously, knowing where a photograph came from is always helpful. Because of social media and genealogy websites, you may have access to family photographs posted by a family member or even a friend of the family. That person’s photograph collection may include more pictures of the same ancestor taken at different times or with other relatives.

Family albums are repositories of photographs of friends, neighbors, and relatives by marriage. It is possible that a photograph of your grandmother may turn up in an album belonging to her former neighbors. Those neighbor’s grandchildren may now have that photograph album in their possession.

Photography: Clues Pictures Hold, Editing, Digitizing and Various Projects

As you document that photograph and its provenance, you might also want to note the photographer who took the image. The names of photographers and their studio locations are sometimes indicated inside old union cases. In later studio portraits this information is sometimes printed right below the image. This is often the case with Cabinet Cards. These photos can include quite an ornate photographer identification or it may simply state, Merchison Studios, Eligin, Illinois. Most people did not travel far to have their picture taken, so their photographer of choice was right in their neighborhood.

Learning how to examine the content and identifying a photograph is a must for the family historian. With our Photography: Clues Pictures Hold, Editing, Digitizing and Various Projects course you will learn more on how to accomplish this.

Who, What and Why?

Basic Questions

How do you learn more about a photograph? Here are some basic questions to help get started.

Photography: Clues Pictures Hold, Editing, Digitizing and Various Projects

WHO is in the photograph?

It would seem that this is a simple question to answer, but identifying people in photographs is not always that easy, especially if there are no other photographs of that person and no living person is around to make the identification. In that case, it may be necessary to rely on a name written on the photograph.

WHAT is in the photograph?

Some photographs have clues that can help identify the subject and the place, even the date, of the photograph. There are numerous things that can appear in a photograph:

  • Houses
  • Commercial buildings
  • Schools
  • Storefronts
  • Cars
  • Street signs

Even Mother Nature can help out if the landscape is studied.

  • Are the trees bare?
  • Is the ground covered in snow?

All of these items are clues to the time of year in which the photo was taken.

WHY was the photograph taken?

Before snapshot cameras became popular around 1900 or so, people did not usually have their photographs taken very often (if at all). So when they did have their photograph taken is was for something special such as a birthday, an engagement or wedding, their arrival in America or in a new town, or a funeral.

Keep in mind that 19th and early 20th century engagement photographs can look almost identical to wedding photographs as most women wore their best Sunday dresses when they married.

It is very helpful to know the basic history of people, places, and things when examining old photographs. These are just some of the topics covered in our Photography: Clues Pictures Hold, Editing, Digitizing and Various Projects course

Brief History of Photography 

Brief History of Photography

The “idea” of photography dates back to the 10th century “camera obscura” and “pinhole camera” described by the Arab scientist, Abu Ali al-Hasan (or Alhzaen), author of The Book of Optics. The camera obscura was a large dark box with a hole in one end which could produce an inverted image opposite it. It is the forerunner of today’s cameras. All it lacked was a lens and means of fixing the image chemically.  

It wasn’t until 1816 that a Frenchman, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, began experimenting with chemically fixing mages. His first success was in 1822, and in 1826 he created the first photograph. That photograph required an 8-hour exposure time. He called the process “heliography.” After his death in 1833 his partner, Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre continued working on the photograph process. In 1837 Daguerre succeeded in reducing the exposure time to 30 minutes. He dubbed his photographs “Daguerreotypes,” and in 1839 he introduced them in Paris and New York City. 

Photography: Clues Pictures Hold, Editing, digitizing and Various Projects

  The Daguerreotype photographic process was in widespread use from 1839 through the 1920s, and 21st century Daguerreian hobbyists still use it. It was at the height of its popularity from 1839 to 1858.  

Daguerreotypes or “dags” are laterally-reversed high-contrast images with very fine, crisp details. They are always case-mounted and sealed with paper tape. The image area is mirrored, so it is necessary to hold it at an angle to see the image clearly.  

Identifying antique photographs is just one of the many things you will learn in the Photography: Clues Picture Hold, Editing, Digitizing and Various Projects” course with The National Institute for Genealogical Studies.  

Your Family Photographs

Handling and Storing   

Older photographs are fragile and easily damaged. The best way to reduce damage is to not handle photographs at all. Since that is not always practical, gloves should be worn when they are handled. Gloves prevent transferring dirt and skin oils on the delicate images. When handling images, put on the gloves and hold the prints by their edges.  

If the photo is a cabinet card or a carte de visite, do not remove the photo from the cardstock on which they are mounted. Those vintage images were printed on very thin paper that will not survive removal from their cardstock backing.  

Photography: Clues Pictures Hold, Editing, Digitizing & Various Projects

Storage 

Photographs should be stored using archival safe products such as archival sleeves, envelopes, unbuffered tissue paper, and boxes that are available online from archival supply stores. Some examples of archival storage include:  

  • Store case-mounted photographs such as daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, tintypes, or domed glass frames in their original cases/frames. Wrap them individually in unbuffered archival tissue paper and then place in an archival safe box.  
  • Store black-and-white prints, black-and-white negatives, color prints and negatives in their own individual sleeves. The sleeves can be stored together in the same archival box.  
  • Store negatives in polypropylene or polyester sleeves. 
  • Store original albums separately in their own archival boxes.   

Most archival safe storage boxes come in different sizes and their metal corners allow for stacking and prevent the corners and contents from being crushed. 

Photographs are an important part of telling a family history. Learning how to handle and care for those photos is just one of the topics taught in our Photography: Clues Pictures Hold, Editing, Digitizing and Various Projects course.

 

The Most Interesting Course I’ve Taken :  Photography: Clues Pictures Hold, Editing, Digitizing and Various Projects

 

Carte de visite of George W. Fackler, 2nd great grandfather of Sandy Fackler. Probably taken between 25 September 1865 and 27 December 1868. Courtesy of Sandy Fackler.

Carte de visite of George W. Fackler, 2nd great grandfather of Sandy Fackler. Probably taken between 25 September 1865 and 27 December 1868. Courtesy of Sandy Fackler.

By Sandy Fackler, PLCGS. Student.

 

I knew little about the aspects of photography when I registered for Photography: Clues Pictures Hold, Editing, Digitizing and Various Projects in December. Now, I want to recommend this course to anyone who has a collection of old or recent photographs because I believe you’ll learn at least 3 things to help you whether it is how to digitize your photos, how to identify people through facial characteristics, or how to identify when or where a photo was taken.

While I’ve scanned photos before, I hate to admit I was unaware I could scan at different dots per inch (dpi) or that my scanner would do so. Now I plan to re-scan many of my old photos to see if I can improve the images. This course also provides tips on organizing photos on a computer so I will do that as I scan.

Cabinet card of Alonzo Hiwanda, aka George F. Day, 3rd great uncle of Sandy Fackler. The names of the gentlemen on the barrel are unknown. Date unknown but probably in 1890s. Courtesy of Sandy Fackler.

Cabinet card of Alonzo Hiwanda, aka George F. Day, 3rd great uncle of Sandy Fackler. The names of the gentlemen on the barrel are unknown. Date unknown but probably in 1890s. Courtesy of Sandy Fackler.

 

I’ve purchased a cabinet card and cartes de visite of my ancestors through eBay. The cabinet card and many of the CDVs are of a circus sideshow performer. I learned about backdrops and that they were individually hand-painted by local artists. Can I find other CDVs with the same background and learn where my CDVs were taken? If so, this might lead to identifying the name of the circus he performed with.

I also have a group photo of men and women possibly taken in the 1890s-1920s. No one is identified. Using information in this course I can try to narrow the time frame through their clothes, hairstyles, and by facial comparison and analysis. Each of these topics is included along with photos for comparison.

One other thing I learned that might help. If I have a photo and can’t identify the person, I might be able to find a written description of potential candidates. Descriptions are found in World War I draft cards, World War II draft registration cars, military records, newspaper articles, and criminal records.

All in all, this was one of the most interesting courses I’ve taken. I’ve learned a lot and if you take this course I believe you will too.

Photography: Clues Pictures Hold, Editing, Digitizing and Various Projects contains eight modules. You can register now for the next class which starts April 2, 2018. For more information on this course and the table of contents, see The National Institute website .

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Sandy Fackler, PLCGS, graduated from the National Institute for Genealogical Studies in April 2013 and holds Certificates in American Records, Irish Records, and Methodology. She is a member of the National Genealogical Society, the Ohio Genealogical Society, the Association of Professional Genealogists, and many local societies. Her favorite source is old newspapers and spends her free time reading them. She is currently researching her third great uncle (the sideshow performer), her English Quaker ancestors, and several local history stories.

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