Genealogy and Photos: Putting Names With the Faces and Places

Photos have helped to capture the history of America for over 150 years and I’m sure your family has taken some photos during that time, hopefully many. Whole books have been written on how to identify ancestors from old photos but I’m talking about something a little easier. You can identify the people from your own life and for your children’s sake, you should make the effort to get the old photos out and write on the back of them.

A Life History in Pictures

I was driving home from work one day thinking about my photos and got to wondering, “What was the first photograph I ever took?” When I got home, I took out my old photo albums and storage boxes and looked to see. The first photo that I could be sure that I took was from 1973. I had gone away from home for the first time on a Girl Scout camping trip and took shots of all the wondrous things I saw, including Mickey Mouse carved into a tree trunk. Next were photos from the bicentennial parade in 1976.

The photos changed dramatically in December of 1979 because I got a Polaroid camera for Christmas. Suddenly, numerous pictures of my dog appeared in my albums. Obviously, there was nothing more wonderful than my dog! Over the next few years, I had other cameras (I remember having a “disc” camera at one point that produced tiny negatives on a wheel-like card) and I took many, many shots of things that teenagers and young adults think are “cool” – and more of the dog.

Picture of Babutz
That’s my dog!

A Little Labeling, a Big Payoff

Bit by bit over the years, I took my old negatives, looked at each set and labeled them. I put mine in regular store-bought envelopes, but if I were to redo the project today, I would probably use materials that are of archival quality. For the pictures themselves, I wrote on the back of each one and put them in photo boxes with dividers. All of this labeling took time, but that investment paid off in two ways.

  1. I was immediately able to lay my hands on Photos and negativesphotos and negatives taken over 30 years ago because they were labeled, cataloged, and stored in a place where they were easily accessible.
  2. While I could identify times, people and places from back then, no one else in my household would have had the faintest idea what some of the photos were about or who was in them. My kids have heard me talk about my dog so much and seen so many photos and little figurines of German Shepherds that they could identify her as easily as their own dog.

I also did this same thing with my “inherited” negatives. That was a little trickier because I was now trying to identify people and places that I didn’t always know and may have never visited. I did the best I could and marked each one as being from “Grandma Casto’s collection”, etc. I was actually able to have some of the negatives printed and ask various family members if they recognized that person or place. Imagine my surprise to find out that I was asking about my great-grandfather, Isadore Casto, when I had been researching and writing about the man for years without ever knowing what he looked like!

Going Digital

When I was almost 40 years old, I finally “gave in” and decided to try one of those new, hot “digital” cameras. Within two years, I was working as a freelance, professional real estate photographer. The photos mounted up, just no more negatives! After I wore that poor camera out, I bought an even bigger and better camera.

Just because there’s no photo paper to write on, though, it’s no less important to have a way to put names with the faces. I like Google Photos because it allows me to tag pictures I upload from my camera with the names of the people, places and things in each picture. If you have many digital photos, I would suggest getting and using software that will allow you to do the same thing, whether on your PC, Mac or the web.

One last comment about digital photos – technology will continue to change in the future and you will want to make sure to stay on top of that, or print some of the best photos so your descendants will be able to see them, too.

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