by John

The use of historical photographs is a key component of genealogical research. My "favorite" ancestral photo is always the next new one that I find. The growth of the Internet and the networking possibilities of websites like Ancestry make the possibility of sharing photographs easier than ever. As careful researchers, however, we still need to be careful about accepting such images as being who they say they are. It is all too easy to claim that an old photograph is that of "so-and-so" without taking the time to examine all of the clues and tracing its provenance in making an accurate assessment. "Provenance" is an archival term that refers to the line of ownership of an object. If someone claims that an image is of a particular person, the first question that a researcher should ask is, "How do you know?" If the photo was passed down in a particular line of a family, that information can be important in terms of verifying its accuracy. Is the original photograph labeled, and is the label in an old, 19th century handwriting or in a more modern hand? Consider other clues in the photo. Is there, for example, a photographer's label? This information would help date and place the photograph, but regrettably, that information is often not included in digital images. Look also very carefully at the style of clothing and hair in order to determine if they are right for the time period of the person and age in question. I am a big fan of the work of photography expert Maureen Taylor and highly recommend her many books, including Uncovering Your Ancestry Through Family Photographs. Finally, look carefully at resemblances in a questionable photo to those of known relatives. Taking these easy steps can make the hobby of ancestral photograph collecting even more rewarding.