What to do with photographs?
July 19, 2008 11:48 PM   Subscribe

What can I do with old--100 years? or more?--family photographs?

With the death of my grandfather, I became the keeper of the family photographs, which is great, because there's so much there that my family never talked about. And it's impossible, because there's so much that my family never talked about. My grandmother has Alzheimers, and my mom has never seen most of these pictures. Other than those two, I don't know of any surviving members of the family other than some last names (but not much else). But I have photographs that were taken in Hamar, Norway (according to the back) with no names, and various other portraits from turn of the last century to the mid-fifties-ish(I assume).

Some of the older examples are here.

So my question is this: does anyone have either (a) suggestions on how I could chase down names, starting with the most recent portraits and then perhaps going backwards as far as possible or (2) suggestions on some type of project I could do with these?

It seems a shame that photos from Norway that made it over here and were saved this long--that were clearly important to someone in my line--would be shoved in a box and forgotten.
posted by e to the pi i to Media & Arts (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Start with your grandmother. Alzheimer's patients can often recall the old memories that those photos depend on. Good luck, it's an admirable project!
posted by rhizome at 12:24 AM on July 20, 2008

Those are so cool. rhizome is right, talk to your grandmother first.
As for what to do with the photos, I'd just make a photo wall with them - very simple frames, and a nice composition. If you have more family other than your Mom, you can also make postcards out of them to send on b-days and the holidays, or even offer framed copies. On my Grandparents' 50th anniversary we made thank you cards from their wedding photo (which is beautiful), and everybody loved it.
posted by neblina_matinal at 3:53 AM on July 20, 2008

Display: Here are some tips from the pros about what you need to do to prevent deterioration of the photos when displaying them.

If you are unable to get information about the photographs from your grandmother, are there other relatives that you could ask? Distant cousins? Did your grandmother have siblings? You might search on the internet for the surnames of the subjects you think are in the photos along with the name of the town/state where they might have lived and then see if there is contact information for them.

I know that sounds kind of crazy, but I was able to return a whole bunch of family photographs to someone I found through an internet search. I had found them in our house, had some surnames and cities, and sent an email to someone doing a search who posted information on a genealogical research site. I also returned a yearbook to the son of its original owner this way (the son was a musician and had a website). Stranger things have happened! Good luck.
posted by jeanmari at 4:57 AM on July 20, 2008

Should we assume that you have a reliable family tree dating back 150 years or so? Useful for cross checking and logic, esp if photos have dates on them. Are any of them connected to any group association? I once was randomly checking an online univerisity archive of old photos of a distant relative I knew and lo and behold there were a bunch of pictures titled "unknown" which were in fact portraits my father's family. The archivist was thrilled to fill in a few blanks. Just to show that things happen. In your case, you might be able to work something like that in reverse, e.g., this is the local volunteer fire dept circa 1920 with name, that guy looks like my guy,

Hard work, often fruitless, but as we have seen, things happen.
posted by IndigoJones at 7:56 AM on July 20, 2008

I have a similar collection of photographs of unidentified Finns, so I can sympathize.

The genealogical society in Hedmark County (which encompasses Hamar) has a website. They might be able to publicize your search.
posted by Knappster at 9:33 AM on July 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

I don't have any tips -- but if you feel like sharing them more broadly, you could consider Shorpy -- shorpy.com. Also, the guys at Shorpy might have some tips for you too -- and it's a cool site to boot.
posted by nnk at 9:57 AM on July 20, 2008

Scan them and then either send printouts or e-mail them to family members?
posted by dunkadunc at 10:58 AM on July 20, 2008

You could try the local newspaper too, see if they are willing to run a story on your looking for your roots in Norway through the old photos. I know that my hometown paper in Sweden runs human interests stories like that sometimes, and that someone located long-lost relatives like that. It might be worth trying, anyway, to see if someone there might be able to help you identify who they are.

Note that "Pladen opbevares" means that the photographer kept the negatives for further copies. It might be possible to locate some info that way. I don't see a "Larsen & Olsen" photographer in the yellow pages for Hamar, but you might also try contacting the other photographers in town to see if they know what happened to that firm. You might be able to at least pinpoint the timeline of the photos.

Many of your other photos have an imprint of the photographer/studio on them, as well, but I couldn't read them. See if you can locate the studio and when it was in business, and you will at least be able to get the location/approximate date of the photo. Also, check all your photos for similar "props" used - things like chairs and tables. Sometimes you can identify the photo's location based on the props showing up in several photos - I have been able to figure out who is who in some old photos by determining that they were taken in the same studio as some pre-identified ones.

Good luck!
posted by gemmy at 12:08 PM on July 20, 2008

Just to update: if we have any family from that line, it goes back three generations to my great-grandfather's brothers (who emigrated with him, 1908) and half-siblings (left behind in Norway), or from my great-grandmother's family (and I really only know her father's name), so it'll be rough. My mom, grandmother, and grandfather were all only children, so there's really no one to ask that I know of. Yet!

I like the idea of contacting the geneological society for the really old pictures, though.

I guess I'm looking for a way to identify the post-Norway pictures now. The photographer's imprints are for the most part from Minneapolis (shocking, really, considering the number of Norwegians and Swedes... shocking!) so that doesn't help narrow down things a whole lot, but I'll start to hunt down the non-Minneapolis ones.

If I can't find anyway to identify these, does any one have any good ideas on what to do with them? I have BOXES of them, so while displaying some will be cool... there's no way I could display all of them. Art projects (I don't send many cards so... meh)? Donation ideas?
posted by e to the pi i at 12:36 PM on July 20, 2008

My Dad has been semi-obsessed with family history for the last few years. He has a little voice recorder and talks to relatives for HOURS about any memories they have of their childhood, what their parents/grandparents told them about, etc. As a culmination of this multi-year project, he wrote down all the stories he'd heard, arranged them into a timeline and attached (digitized) old pictures to them then printed a bunch of copies and spiral-bound it and distributed it to family members.

A start would just be to scan all the pics and email them to every family member you know and ask them to take them to their parents, grandparents, etc and see what you can dig up.
posted by arnicae at 1:03 PM on July 20, 2008

Don't get rid of them! Eek! Store them in a way that will preserve them (or give them to someone in the family that will) and have a rotating display of pictures somewhere in your home/apartment. If you donate them, make sure it is as a lot to a credible museum/historical society.

IMO, you're unlikely to be able to find interest since right now you know so little about them . . .
posted by arnicae at 1:05 PM on July 20, 2008

scan all of them first. photos that old have a way of falling apart in your hands when they're not cared for properly and i'd guess box upon box would be not cared for properly. once you scan them, i'd throw them all online with a few details taht could be searched (town names, family name) and then find a couple vintage portrait communities (livejournal has a pretty good one) and post a picture or 5 with a link back to the page. put a "digg this" button on it to see if other people would see it. i bet you'll find all sorts of information.

as far as what to do with the prints, once you have the scans i'd keep the ones that you like the best and get them framed (acid free mats, acid free paper between the backing and the picture), keep another smallish box in case you want to do art projects or post cards later (i'm thinking collaging could be really cool), and donate the rest. there's probably an american norwegian museum somewhere.

oh, and for your grandmother, maybe take some there like others suggested for the stories, but then leave the ones that seem to hit her the most. it seems any type of familiarity is helpful for those with alzheimers.
posted by nadawi at 1:06 PM on July 20, 2008

You may well find historical societies interested in some of them - especially if they are not just portraits but show some of the environment your ancestors lived in, not just them. Just scan a selection of interesting ones and send emails to likely candidates.
posted by koahiatamadl at 1:07 PM on July 20, 2008

oh - and for finding family lines and genealogy, go to the mormons. there's some sites online, but unless it's changed drastically since i was a member 10+ years ago, there's a family history center somewhere in your town and you can go and use their computers to access the genealogy database. no single group has more information about the movement of people of the last couple hundred years.
posted by nadawi at 1:08 PM on July 20, 2008

two things that i've done recently:

i decoupaged a tabletop with a bunch of lovely old photos i got from my dad. (he has no idea who these people are, beyond knowing they're likely related, and there's no one else left alive to ask). it made the table look *so* cool.

i've also taken to surriptitously inserting some of these old photos in library books, magazines (at the news stand, not sold yet) and other unique places like that. since i don't know who these people are, and don't (honestly) care all that much, i *love* imagining the expressions on the faces of people who discover these wonderful old photographs in a completely un-related place.

(of course, neither of these ideas sounds like what you're looking for, since it seems you want to find out about the photos and the people involved. i just thought i'd share something that has been quite liberating for me.)
posted by CitizenD at 5:32 PM on July 20, 2008

You've probably realized this, but most of those individual portraits of young women look like graduation photos (white dress, scroll, etc). You might try checking likely schools to see if any have old annuals - also the sort of thing local genealogy libraries collect.
posted by clerestory at 9:10 PM on July 20, 2008

Start by digitizing the pictures and cleaning them up a bit (if you don't have the skills to do it yourself, there's a Flickr group that will help you do photo restorations). That way, you will at least have copies of all the images for later.

Even if you can't display all the pictures themselves in original, you could make a nice coffee table type book out of the scanned ones. I scanned a whole slew of old pictures and used them in a photo book (via blurb.com) for my grandma. She also has Alzheimers, and doesn't know who anyone is these days, and yet she still loves that book and looks in it constantly. All my aunts and uncles got a copy of the book too, and it was great as a present.

As for the originals, keep the best ones for yourself to display (making note, of course, of the advice to make sure they don't deteriorate), then see if you can donate the others to a local historic society or to a museum. If the lack of identity means that the museum/historical society won't take them, maybe talk to a local art school and see if they might have a use for them? Might make a fun project for a photography class, or something.

Also, I LOVED what CitizenD did, and think it's a great idea as well.

//Hopes fervently to someday find a cool old photo in a book or magazine...
posted by gemmy at 9:12 PM on July 20, 2008

Oh my gosh. I'm in the exact same position, right down to the area of Norway and my ancestors having come to Minnesota. Unfortunately, my grandmother passed away in March. She was blind, but before she passed I was able to reconstruct what some of the photographs were of just by describing the scenes to her. These photographs were very important to her and it made my last few months with her quite pleasant as we were able to relive, together, some of her favorite memories.

I have done a lot of research on what to do with them because I am committed to restoring these photographs and making them available for future generations in my family.

First, get this book: Uncovering Your Ancestry Through Family Photographs by Maureen Taylor

Ms. Taylor is considered an expert on this topic and her books are amazingly thorough and helpful.

I also recommend her other book, Preserving Your Family Photographs: How to Organize, Present and Restore Your Precious Family Images.

My approach to this project has been rather scientific. My first step is to scan and record every photo. If you do this yourself, make sure that you have a good scanner and that you are scanning each photo at AT LEAST 300 dpi and that any automatic scanning aids are turned off like "auto tone" or "auto color" or anything of the like. After you are done scanning, back up all this data. If you aren't technically or graphically inclined, you can take your photos to a local film/camera/photo-processing store and have them scanned. Such a store here locally has a service just for people with family photographs, called "Shoebox Specials" in which you can bring a shoebox full of photos and have the whole works scanned for a small price. It's a great deal and you will be assured quality scans!

My second step is going to be working on the identification. I haven't read through the identification book as much as I have read the preservation one yet, but I have a few ideas. I suspect that dating your photos will be a great first step and Maureen's book will help you with that. Any great aunts or uncles? They should know at least a few people in your photographs. You may have good luck by digging into your genealogy a bit. I started researching mine and found distant cousins that had already worked out much of my family tree, including my own branch. They were incredibly helpful in helping me sort things out. Also, you may dig deeper and find that your grandma also saved letters or newspaper clippings. You would be amazed at how well these can complement your photographs. I found a cache of love letters sent between my grandma and grandpa which clearly explained away a few years of photographs in my collection. Your local historical society can also help with major events that may be featured in your photos and in helping locate mentions of your ancestors in the newspapers.

As for what to do with them, my main goal has been to make them available to all of my family and also to make them available to family members who may come after. If my parents had come across some photos and thrown them away, donated them, or slipped them into books, I would have been heartbroken. I did actually have some great uncles who were antique dealers and they sold many of our original pictures we had from Norway. Nowadays I wander through antique stores and gaze at the collections of pictures wondering sadly if any of them are my ancestors. It makes me incredibly sad to think of photos being separated from their families. You might not care, but what if your kids or grandkids do? What if your cousins care? It's ultimately up to you because you have the photos, but please consider that someone from your family will want to see or own them too.

My solution has been to publish a "heritage book." I'm a graphic artist, history buff and photo geek, so this fits right into my interests. I'd like to research the photos as much as I can and publish two volumes: one of a researched, well-written family history with pictures, newspaper clippings, letters and tidbits about each period; the second, a collection of all of the photos that I have, with captions where possible. I'll probably self-publish them on lulu.com and make them available to all of the cousins and second cousins as well as make copies for the local historical society.

I wish you the best of luck and hope you find some answers!
posted by bristolcat at 11:29 AM on July 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

I thought of you just now when I found this, quite by accident. You might find it interesting. It appears to be some kind of family tree software that uses face recognition and compares your photos to others in its database to see if they can find your ancestors in other photos. Maybe I understand it wrong, but that's what it seemed to say. I have no idea how it works and haven't tried it, but it is intriguing!
posted by bristolcat at 3:32 PM on July 21, 2008

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