2017 the Year to Organize Photos Series: Identifying the Unknowns

If you have been following along with our 2017 the Year to Organize Photos Series, we have guided you through sorting, purging, scanning, and organizing your photos. You probably have a pile of images where you forgot who or where it was taken but it felt important to hold on to. This upcoming holiday season is a great time to tote along these images or just the scanned images to friend and family functions to play “Who is this person?” It doesn’t have to be limited to your unknown images either. You can also get help properly dating your photos, or at least narrowing down the possibilities.

Even if it is not the holiday season there are several other tools that can help identify and date your photos. Posting photos to social media (Throwback Thursday anyone?) takes advantage of a larger pool of people (and their memories) to identify a person, event, or date of a photo. Sometimes you’ll get the added benefit of a story behind the image, which you will want to add to your photo hub for safekeeping.

When you were sorting photos, hopefully you noted down any dates on the photo envelope the image was found in. These dates act as starting points to finding out when the image was taken. However, you’ll need to take these dates with a grain a salt if you (or the person who took the photos) tended to hoard rolls of film for months or years on end before developing them.

Identifying the photo paper and process is another great tool for dating a photo. Using resources such as the Graphics Atlas by the Image Permanence Institute can help you identify the type of photo paper or process used to create the image you have, narrow down the time frame it could have been taken in, and give you an overall appreciation for the wide variety of photo image types out there. What is wonderful about this tool are the visual photo samples and the ability to compare different types of photo papers/processes side by side.

If you find the photo paper/process identification daunting, look closely at the subjects in the photograph.
– What type of clothes are people wearing?
– What about hairstyles?
– Look at the furniture or cars (be aware that people can keep furniture and cars around for awhile but it can sometimes narrow down your date range – think avocado green coordinated kitchens)

The following tools can help you identify and narrow down the time period for your unknown image:

Researchers Toolbox, Prints & Photographs Reading Room, The Library of Congress

Genealogy research: Dating vintage photographs by clothing & hairstyles by Nancy J Price

Maureen Taylor, The Photo Detective (check out her guides and blog)

How to Date Photos When Even Your Family Can’t Remember Them! By Curtis Bisel – Scan Your Entire Life

After exhausting all tools to identify and date your images, you’ll have a better appreciation for capturing names and dates on all of your future photos. You may also discover that you have an image of a loved one that you (or another grateful family member) did not know you had before.

About Gabriela Burgman

Gabriela's mission is to empower her clients with the tools and motivation they need to get and stay organized. Prior to becoming a Professional Organizer, Gabriela worked in a photograph archive as well as several university archives, assisting offices, administrators, and retiring academics to sort through their files for preservation or disposal. She became a professional organizer in 2007 working as an independent consultant before joining Living Peace. When Gabriela is not learning new ways to organize photos or paper both physically and electronically, she is spending time on what matters most to her: visiting with family and friends, reading a good mystery book, or cooking a tasty meal.

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