The Photo Detective


We've written about old photos before. Based on my informal surveys, I think most people are at least slightly obsessed with old photos -- there's a tension between the clear documentation of a moment (a photo) and the common lack of any information about the moment -- who's pictured, where was the photo taken, and when? Earlier this month there was an excellent profile in The Wall Street Journal called The Photo Detective, detailing Maureen Taylor's work with old photos, answering just such questions -- Taylor dates photos based on their content and performs quasi-forensic work to identify the people pictured.

Here are some bits from the article:

With millions of Americans obsessively tracing their roots, Ms. Taylor has emerged as the nation's foremost historical photo detective. During a recent meeting of the Maine Genealogical Society, attendees lined up a dozen deep as she handled their images with a cotton glove and peered at the details through a photographer's loupe. One man offered a portrait photo and asked if it could be of his great grandmother, who died in 1890. "It's not," Ms. Taylor said after about 15 seconds; she'd dated the hairstyle and billowy blouse to the early 20th century. When another attendee asked why her great-great-grandfather was wearing small hoops in his ears in a portrait, Ms. Taylor explained, "He was in the maritime trade."

Ms. Taylor, who charges $60 an hour, has learned to spot details that reveal not only a photo's period, but the story behind it. A broom at the feet of a couple in a mid-19th-century portrait, for instance, often marks it as a wedding picture. A photograph of a baby in a carriage from the 1860s might not be a birth announcement, but a death card; in that period of high infant mortality, dead infants were commonly photographed in carriages. A 19th-century woman with unusually short hair may have had scarlet fever, because it was common to shave a victim's head.

It's a great read for anyone with an interest in old photos. You can also find more info on Maureen Taylor's web site, including various books and articles she has written, and even a blog.