Who Are They? Unidentified Photographs in the Archives
This blog entry written by Lisa Wood, Curator of Audiovisual Collections
When people examine their old family photographs they often come across one or two, or a dozen, that are not identified. Who are they? people wonder. In a photo archives the conundrum of unidentified people in photographs is multiplied thousands of times. Many times peoples names are carefully recorded on the front or back of the photographs, sometimes ages and dates are also included. Just as often, this is not the case. Sometimes curators are able to compare photographs of people in family collections and tentatively identify someone based on their resemblance to other marked photographs. Most of the time, we can not.
There is a daguerreotype in our collections that might be a photograph of Civil War officer and U.S. President James A. Garfield taken in the 1850s. For a person who lived in the 1800s, Garfield was frequently photographed. We have compared this daguerreotype to other photographs of Garfield that are in the Ohio Historical Societys collections. We have also looked online at photographs of Garfield in the collections of the Library of Congress. Identification is tricky because many of the existing photographs of Garfield were taken later in his life and this photograph was taken before the Civil War. We can not decide if this is really Garfield.
Occasionally, there are photographs of unidentified people that really catch your attention. The Historical Society has a large collection of negatives taken by a traveling photographer named Albert Ewing who worked along the Ohio River at the turn of the century. Ewing had an uncanny ability to capture peoples emotions and life circumstances with his camera. Looking at his photographs, it is not hard to imagine life in Appalachia in 1900. Even though we don’t know the peoples names, we still have a window into their lives and it is captivating.