Joan Enders sent this photo of a man she believes is her great-grandfather William
Riley Keeth, of Iberia
Miller County, Mo. She wanted to know more about the backdrop and to verify it's him.
In the late 19th century, photographic props and backdrops were very elaborate. Some even included bales of hay and faux stone walls. A photographer posed this man with a backdrop that looks like the interior of a Victorian mansion, complete with a multi-paned window and what resembles wallpaper. Of course, it's all just paint and canvas.
I wish there were a directory of photo backdrops! It would be so useful to know which photographers were using which backgrounds. It might even help pinpoint where a picture was taken.
For example, Joan could contact a historical society in the area where her ancestor lived. The Miller County Museum
might have a collection of local images. Then she could compare backdrops in those images to her own to see if they were shot by same photographer or studio. A city directory could tell her when the photographer was in business, helping to date the image.
One of the largest online databases of pictures is Dead Fred
. While it's primarily a photo-reunion site, I searched for Missouri photographers to see if I could find anyone near Miller County. No luck! But it's a good tip to try: Use the search feature to look for surnames or place names.
The best part of this image isn't what's behind the man, but what he's holding— a letter. Notice how the envelope (in his left hand) is ripped open. Despite being a posed image, this picture has captured a spontaneous moment. The man looks at the camera with a surprised expression.
He's wearing work clothes and appears to have rushed into the photo studio to document the receipt of this written news. So what was in the letter? There might be a family story associated with some sort of important information.
Based on his clothing, the background and the plain brown cardboard backing, it appears this photo dates from about 1900.
Does the photo really show William Riley Keeth? Keeth was born in 1865 and married in 1888. Here's a known photo of Keeth with his bride Mary Ella Thomas, taken in the year they married:
While the man in the first photo shares many of the facial characteristics of the man in this image, their ears are different. Notice how small this man's ears are. There's something odd about this tintype, too—it almost looks like a tintype of a painting. The edges of the couple's features are blurred.
Before deciding if these two men are the same person, I'll ask Joan for a better scan or picture of this image, and ask some additional questions about her family. I also still have a question about the backdrop: The window looks like backgrounds I've seen in English photographs, not like an American home. I'm still looking for an image with a similar backdrop. If you have one in your family collection, send it in
and let's help Joan solve this.