1. Parenting
Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Your Family Photographs
By David L. Mishkin, Just Black & White
 More of this Feature
• Part 2: Preservation
• Part 3: Safe Storage
• Part 4: Restoration
 Join the Discussion
"Have a question about your old photographs?"
Ask the Expert!
  Related Resources
• Dating Old Photos
• Heritage Albums
Preservation Tips
 From Other Guides
• Storing Old Photos
• Scrapbooking
• History:Photography
• NotablePhotographers

So your mother, father, aunt, uncle just unloaded a shoebox full of family photographs on you because of your interest in the family history. You have finished identifying the relatives as well as possible and now have no idea how to store the photographs for future generations. You realize that some of them are in great shape but some are fading, some are sticking to each other and some photographs have mold on them....Yuck!

What is a genealogist to do now? It is a good idea as a first step to be able to identify the most common types of photographic processes. This will help confirm the period of time the photographs were made of that member of your family.

I have worked with several genealogists to help identify their photographs. On one occasion, a positive identification of a salt print allowed us to determine that this photograph was of the researcher's great-grandmother, whereas most of her family believed it was their grandmother. On another occasion, the identification allowed us to learn the proper orientation of an image. This allowed the researcher to conclude that this was in fact the house his grandfather was born in. 

Photographic Identification

In the beginning...Ah! But where is the beginning? Did photography start in the year 1,000 AD when Alhazen described the principal of the "Camera Obscura" - a drawing aid meaning a dark chamber. 500 years later, Leonardo da Vinci described the same device and operated one outside his studio in Florence. Or should we consider the beginning in the 1560's when lenses were fitted to the Camera Obscura, allowing an image to be sharply focused on a piece of ground glass and allowed the operator to trace a picture on a thin sheet of drawing paper laid over the glass.

Most authorities will agree that the first practical form of photography was encouraged through the experiments and developments (no pun intended) of Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre. Although William Henry Fox Talbot had been working on a process that recorded a negative image, Daguerre was the first to publicize his results and the discovery of the photographic process is attributed to Daguerre. The daguerreotype, popular from 1839-1860, was produced on a metal support of thin copper, with a highly polished mirror-like coating of silver. They are sealed in glass to protect the plate from atmospheric and physical damage. In America, daguerreotypes were most often placed in small hinged cases made of wood with a leather or paper covering. The daguerreotypes distinguishing features are its highly polished silver support and its quality of appearing as a negative, or a positive depending upon the angle of viewing and the direction from which light falls upon it. 


Left photo is a daguerreotype viewed as a positive. Right  photo is a daguerreotype viewed as a negative.

Due to limitations and difficulties of producing a large plate, daguerreotypes were rarely made any larger than 6 ½ to 8 ½ inches, known as whole-plate size. The most common size produced was sixth-plate size and measured 2 ½ by 3 ¼. It is estimated that by 1853 as many as three million daguerreotypes were made in the United States alone.

Next page > More Photographic Techniques  > Page 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10


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Images © 2000 David Mishkin.  All Rights Reserved.

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