What do you do with that box of old family photos you found in the attic?
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.
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.
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.
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.
How do you learn more about a photograph? Here are some basic questions to help get started.
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:
- Commercial buildings
- 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
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.
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.