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by Maureen A. Taylor

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# Monday, September 22, 2008
Tackling an Albumful of Mystery Photos
Posted by Maureen

Bobbi Borbas wrote back after I posted her unidentified group portrait to say that after looking at her family history, she still isn't sure who the folks are in her mystery image. Some photo mysteries take a great deal of time and patience to solve. I still think the case can be cracked!

A similarly vexing mystery: I was on the road again this weekend meeting people at the Ruth E. Lloyd Information Center in Manassas, Va. I saw some gorgeous photos and new mysteries. One in particular stands out. A woman brought in a photo album that had been passed down in the family. She didn't know who any of the people were, but I really believe she can put the pieces together.

I don't have any photos to share, so I'll describe the album: It had two clusters of photos. The first half featured photos from the late 1880s, all taken in Grand Island, Neb. The last couple of pages had photos from the 1860s, with no photographer's name or address. It appeared that at least two generations were included.

Here's how I'd approach this problem (similar steps can work for your own photos):
  • Research the population of Grand Island in the 1880s. That's the easy part. According to Wikipedia, less than 3,000 people lived there in 1880, but close to 7,500 did as of 1890. The reason for this population boom: the railroad. 
  • When was the photographer in business? I'd start this search by contacting the Nebraska State Historical Society. Its reference department might have a list of photographers in the area.
  • Next, look at surnames in the family and think about the following questions: Who lived in Nebraska in that time frame? When did they settle in the area and why? Those answers can lead to sources such as land and church records, which can fill in for the "lost" 1890 federal census schedules. 
  • The number one spot in a photo album is key. In this case, that picture was a young boy, with the second and third images showing a couple, followed by two girls. Did the boy die?
  • Look for facial similarities. In this album, there were clusters of pictures where it was clear from their noses and mouths that they were all close relatives.
  • Re-examine the family history. By adding up all the clues, I think it's possible to assign some probable names to these individuals.
Every piece of evidence helps tell the story of a photo album. There was a reason behind the order of the images. Who created it often becomes clear, and by solving one of the picture mysteries, you get that much closer to figuring out the rest. 

This is one problem I'd love to help solve.  If the woman from RELIC would like some assistance, send me an e-mail. It'd make an interesting case study for a future column. 

1860s photos
Monday, September 22, 2008 3:04:05 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)  #  Comments [1]
Thursday, September 25, 2008 9:38:00 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
A resource I've found helpful for Nebraska and other western photo research is Biographies of Western Photographers 1840-1890 by Carl Mautz. From the author's site: "Biographical directory covering 15,000 photographers in 27 Western states and Canadian provinces; index by state/province; bibliography; text on collecting photographers' imprints; dating guide; glossary."

The cardboard frame of a photo of my gr-grandmother's brother Charles gave the name and address of the photographer; when I looked him up in Mautz's book, it turns out that he was only in business for one year in that city. Now if I could just find out what Charles was doing between Kansas in 1860 and San Francisco in 1895.
Mary Beth Frederick
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