Step 1: Start – Prepare your space and dive in to the sorting.
Step 2: Keep Sorting and Start Researching
So you’ve started trying to sort through your family photos, but may have been overwhelmed by the sheer number you have, or how many you weren’t sure about either the date, the people pictured, or the location. Deep breath. This may be when you decide to stop and hire professional help. *ahem–me* Or if you want to dig a little deeper for your inner Monica Geller, here is how to proceed.
I began sorting by decade, knowing that everything would not be in perfect order right away, which is totally fine. Now that everything is roughly sorted, I am going through each decade’s pile with a more discerning eye to the order with the aim to get everything in chronological order, at least to the right year. If many photos are undated, it will be nearly impossible to have the photos in month/date order as even the people who lived through the events in the photos may not be able to remember which happened first or exactly what month and day.
So if your photos are undated, how do you go about deciding which order they should be in? The first step if possible is to ask the subjects of the photos, the person who was likely behind the camera, or other close relatives who may recognize the subjects, places, or time periods.
Even Monica could use a little help from her relatives…
What some of my research looks like–texts to my mom.
But what if no one remembers? There are other ways to figure out approximate dates. Obvious first options–check the front and back of the photo for the dates that were printed on the photo. Keep in mind that those dates are when the photos were printed, not taken. Depending on how quickly you or your relatives took their film to be developed will determine how close those printed dates are to the taken dates.
Also common are handwritten dates and other info on the backs of the photos. If there is identifying information on some photos, you can then use context clues for similar looking photos–photos of family members where they look the same age, photos taken in the same house, etc.
It is also helpful to pay attention to hairstyles, styles of dress, and background details including signs, places, home decor, etc. to get an idea of time period. (Hopefully your family wasn’t behind the times too much.)
The size of your prints can also be a general clue to age. For example, standard 4×6 wasn’t the standard until the 1990s. Smaller prints were more popular in the 1970s and 80s. And even smaller prints (like teeny tiny) were common in the 1940s. And finally, if in doubt, using estimations is fine.
Now, what do you do with the information you gather from relatives and your research about specific images? For now, I would recommend making notes on a separate piece of paper. Writing on the photos themselves is not recommended for two reasons, physical preservation of the photo, and preservation of the context of the photo. If you add your own notes to the back of a photo that already has writing on it, or worse, you write a note that turns out not to be correct, later viewers of the image may not be sure what was written originally and what was added later.
The information is better added later in a caption in a photo album (with an archival quality pen or pencil) and in the digital record’s metadata, which we will discuss more in depth later.
As you go forth and gather information from relatives also consider recording more formal oral history interviews with them. There is nothing like preserving a relative’s voice and their stories. More on oral histories later or contact me to see how I can help.
Stay tuned for next steps–deciding on storage, both physical and digital, and labeling.