Time to Play Detective

Grouping your photos by date is a very common way to organize them.  For older photos, looking at them by decade helps you to understand the timeframe and what each person was like at that time.  For more recent pictures (when we’re taking more in a day than we did in a year in the old days), your timeframe should be shorter – each month might get its own folder.

My last blog post talked about metadata and the fact that digital cameras attach the date to each photo taken.  What do you do about older pictures?  What if you inherited a box of photos from a relative or discovered an old box of your own?  This is when you get to play detective (or in my case, librarian).

If you’re lucky, the photo processing at the time put the date processed right on the photo.  In the 1950s and 1960s, this might be on the white space around the photo.  In the 1970s and 1980s, it might be on the corner.  In the 1990s, some cameras allowed the user to turn a digital date on and off which would then appear when processed.

If there’s no date on the front, flip the photo over.  Again, the date processed may appear on the paper.  If the photo is dated February 1949 and it’s a Christmas photo, you can almost confidently say it was taken in December 1948.  Remember, it could take months to use a roll of film, so use common sense to work backward through time to when the photo may have been taken.  This is true for dating slides as well — the date stamped on the cardboard or plastic around the slide is the processing date.

While it is definitely not a good practice to write on the back of pictures with a pen or marker (they bleed through eventually, may smear onto other photos, or indent if you press too hard), it certainly is helpful to the one researching the photo.  I have been fortunate to read all kinds of details about old pictures because someone took the time to write on the back.  There are pencils appropriate for doing this, but today that detail should be attached to the digital version of the photo.

So what if there is no easy way to date the photo?  That’s when you look closely at the type of processing (daguerreotype, black-and-white, orange-tinted), the style of clothing worn, the furnishings in the room or cars on the street, and any other available detail.  You would be surprised at what can help you figure a timeframe out.  I’ve seen touristy shirts on people in the background (Disney 1992) and license plates on cars (MICH  66).  Again – you don’t need to be exact, but now you can put the photo in the appropriate decade.

If you have a helper, let them in on the tips you just learned.  Another set of eyes might find a detail you missed.  You’ll have your photos organized in no time.  Have fun playing detective!


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