Genealogy Studies Program

The Art of Photo Identification

The art of photo identification is an invaluable tool for genealogists who find unlabeled family images. The older the image, the more likely it has no caption since early formats such as daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes have metal or glass backs that don’t hold ink or pencil.

Leading photo identification books promote different methods, but most depend on thorough descriptions of all visible attributes, the type of medium used in the “print”, and an approximation of the date taken. The method taught at Boston University adds a focus on where the image was captured and use of local photo archives.

Genealogists who specialize in photo identification often work for private parties, photo collectors, libraries or archives, or even themselves. With good technique a team of researchers recently authenticated an image of outlaw Billy the Kid playing croquet. This was a $2 junk shop find that is estimated to be worth several million dollars. A browser search of “Billy the Kid” will result in numerous articles on this amazing picture.

In an increasingly visual world, images of ancestors are every bit as important as other documentation. A solid command of photo identification will help ensure you don’t toss out a meaningful connection to your past.

Melinde Lutz Byrne