How to Interpret and Identify a Photograph: AKA How to Look Beyond the Grandma

How to Interpret and Identify a Photograph: AKA How to Look Beyond the Grandma

Yes, it’s still American Archives Month (hooray!)

Have you ever taken the time to really study a photograph, to look beyond the obvious (“yup that’s grandma”) and explore the scene from a different angle? They say “a photo is worth a thousand words”, but have you ever tried do it? To piece together the story behind the pic?

Today we’re delving into this idea with the hope that you’ll be inspired to “look beyond the grandma” and uncover the past. All of the 19th Century photos in my personal collection were purchased, so I don’t know the people in them, when the images were taken, or what their lives were like. But by knowing a little about the history of photography, a little about fashion history, and a little about decorative arts (home decor), architecture, or even vehicles (for exterior shots of course), I can often piece together enough information to speculate on the subject’s lives. If you know a little about a few different things, it can become rather elementary, dear Watson!

Anyway, let’s chat a bit about this amazing - but anonymous - lady. The sleeves of her bodice are very obviously c1895/6, which makes dating the image pretty easy. Those giant gigot (or leg-o-mutton) sleeves shook the world but only for a very brief period of time.* Remember that now. However, the decorative front buttons, high collar, hair accessory, and hairstyle are also clues worth pursuing, as is the wicker chair, which was popular during the 1890s. The dress’s fabric looks heavy, perhaps wool(?), and when paired with the fur draped over the chair it makes me wonder if the photo was taken in the winter. (Oof. I wouldn’t want to have those behemoths on my biceps all day.) 💪🏽 Everything in the image - as well as the physical attributes of the photo - give off clues that can help you learn more about the who/what/when/where & why behind old photos.

Whether you’re ready for a deep dive into scholarly research or just up for a casual Google search, exploring the forgotten secrets in a photo can be a lot of fun. I promise - you should try it! So the next time you see and old photo of Grandma, don’t just look at her face. There’s history detective work to be done. And if you’re excited to learn more about this sort of thing, I’m teaching some introductory Textiles Care courses through the Iowa Museum Association (register here! No museum experience necessary) and I’m planning to offer my Saving Your Family Photos workshops and debut new workshops(!) in 2022 so stay tuned for details.

But wait, there’s more!

I’ll end today by sharing a photo of MY grandma. Isn’t she lovely? Now “look beyond the grandma” and see what else there is to see. (I mean, first of all can we talk about that car?!) When do you think this photo was taken?

*So apparently Gen Zers are out there wearing clothes inspired by the 1990s (lawd help us all.) Well, those were my high school & college years and I’m not ready to revisit any of that. However, I keep finding myself buying poofy-sleeved sweaters like it’s the 1890s. I suppose between the “mom jeans”, poofy sleeves, and #cottagecore stuff, we just can’t pick a century to recreate right now. And you know what, folks? That’s okay. You do you, y’all. It’s all good. …Just don’t make me wear mom jeans.

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