Research Your Scottish Ancestry

Robert WilbanksPhotos and Genealogy

by Robert M. Wilbanks IV, B.A.
Chief Genealogist & Historian, C.S.A.

While “A picture paints a thousand words,” photos can write your family history into an expansive novel, or even a movie. Old family photos greatly add to your research success, as well as help present a detailed visual of your genealogy, offering a wealth of additional information and surprising details.

This article intends to very briefly let you know of the many various benefits and best methods for utilizing, incorporating, and preserving old family photos.

Understanding the history of photography, the art form and industry, and the historic types of photos, can add to dating and preserving old photos. Some distinguishing types of photos include Daguerreotypes (1840s-early 1860s), Ambrotypes (1855-1865), Tintypes (1856-1890s), Cartes des Visites (1859-early 1900s), and Cabinet Cards (1860s-early 1900s). While dating photos based on type can help identify family members, knowledge of the family can also help narrow down the dates of events in the photos.

Awareness of the ‘provenance’ of photos, where they came from, how they belonged to the family, etc., can be important in utilizing them as documentation of family stories, information, history, etc. Combined with known information of the family, this ‘provenance’ can add to the knowledge, and fill any gaps, of any missing information.

Learning the notable fashion, the furniture of the times, and the locations in the photos, can also help with dating and identifying localities of photos, or confirming persons, etc.

While the above factors can add to the life and stories of the ancestors within the family history, other aspects of photos in genealogy include conservation and preservation, filing and organizing, including employing new high-tech tools and resources.

Various manners of materials can be found in a family collection of old photos, such as individual photos, glass plate negatives, slides, negatives, photo albums, etc. Thus, conservation and preservation of these old family photos is becoming a bigger part of genealogy. This includes handling, identifying, and storing, such as wearing gloves, utilize pencil versus pen or marker, other forms of labeling, archival photo boxes and binders for storing and organizing.

New exciting advances in technology are really adding to the photo possibilities in genealogy, such as digitizing for preservation, storing and sharing, and incorporating into writing family histories and websites and genealogy blogs. For example, there are new technologies to help digitize slides and negatives, or to digitize damaged photos and restore them electronically. Other technology tools include the many websites popping up where photos with unknown locations or family members can be shared in the hopes that someone else can help with identification. There are also new facial recognition programs that can help compare the people in your photos with the vast number of identified photos on the internet. And there is new developing software that helps utilize facial recognition to connect unidentified photos with current living family members based on similarity of inherited features.

If you don’t have family photos of your ancestors, you are likely to find them on the internet through standard genealogy subscription sites, such as Ancestry, FamilySearch, FindMyPast, etc. Meanwhile, there are various other genealogy photos web-sharing sites, and unidentified photos sites, such as AncientFaces, DeadFred, Flickr, and many more. Additionally, consider online historical museums, universities, libraries, archives and more, to locate historic and potentially old family photos.

Meanwhile, also consider locating and utilizing historical photos that indirectly can be added to your family history, such as old cars, military ships, downtown and main street photos, old buildings and farms, school photos, fraternal organizations, and so much more. This can really add to the story and appearance of your history.

There are extensive numbers of websites, blogs and YouTube videos, etc., with information and instruction on all aspects of photos as it relates to genealogy. Utilize various combinations of the search terms such as photos, genealogy, organizing, preservation, etc., to find these many internet sites that can help you learn about old photos and how to incorporate them into your family history.

Photos can truly be a fun and exciting aspect and addition to include in your family history. So, learning more about photos can be significant. Have fun and good luck.

This is another of a series of articles in which I show you the basics of searching for your family history, discussing the use of family records, public records, and online resources nationally and internationally, etc. The previous articles are now available on the Genealogy Section of this website.   See “Genealogy” in the menu options at the top of the web page.