12 October 2007

Secrets of the shoebox: Photo detectives

Maureen Taylor AKA the Photo Detective made page 1 of the Wall Street Journal's weekend edition today. The story also mentions forensic photo sleuth Colleen Fitzpatrick. The graphics are also good with images showing clues Taylor identified and a video of Fitzpatrick as she analyzes two photos.

Do you want to know how Taylor and other photo detectives unlock the secrets of the shoebox? This detailed article reveals some techniques.

Although the story's focus is Taylor, there's also information on optical scientist and genealogist Fitzpatrick, who uses handwriting, shadows and photo dimensions to help solve puzzles.

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."

Taylor says she's worked with about 10,000 photos in the decade she's been in business from her home, and receives about 30 requests a week. She's also sought out by collectors, historians and TV producers.

Clues to photographs are given:

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.

The article offers information on photo types and processing, websites selling "instant" ancestors, and deadfred.com's database of "more than 70,000 abandoned photos dating back as far as 1840; more than 1,100 have been identified."

I wasn't surprised to learn that Taylor is a compulsive collector of obscure reference books and has bookcases filled with every conceivable sort of guide and encyclopedia. She's always on the look-out for old photos, collecting them from flea markets, antique fairs and online sites.

Read much more here.

A related post is on the WSJ's Independent Street blog which discusses commercial sites for scanning photographs. This blog by staffer Wendy Bounds addresses the aspirations, challenges and opportunity of entrepreneurship.

Photo-service entrepreneurs saw the future a while ago and invested in equipment to make it less painful for the rest of us. Foremost among them are photo retail veterans Mitch Goldstone and his partner Carl Berman of 30 Minute Photos Etc. in Irvine, Calif. Through their Web site scanmyphotos.com anyone in the U.S. can pay $99.95 for a flat, prepaid box from the U.S. Postal Service, fill it with as many photos as they can (roughly 1,600 4x6″ photos) and send it to 30 Minute Photos. It will scan the images and mail them and a DVD back in a day. Enhancements and restoration cost extra.

Comments from readers are interesting as she invites them to comment on services, technology and tricks they have used to preserve their photos.

Read more here.

And if you want to learn more about Taylor with links to additional information, see the Family Tree Magazine blog here.

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