It seems like everyone has a stack of old family photographs for which no one can identify the who, what, or when. Yet, intrinsically we know they must be important if they have been kept for so long. In identifying photographs, trying to find the answers to these questions often seems like an impossible task. Anyone that was around when the photo was taken is long gone, and it seems like the small context clues are all you have. Fear not! Sometimes the impossible task of identifying the unidentifiable photographs can be accomplished.
At the Center of the West, this is exactly what I do. After a photograph has been scanned I create searchable captions, dates, and descriptions and add them to our online Digital Collections. This week I had a major breakthrough with an image of six unidentified men. When I first looked at this image, I could not help but think, “two of these guys look so familiar.” Digging through a large collection of photographs looking for a familiar face can be daunting, but well worth the effort. With Digital Technician Mack Frost and I putting our heads together, we got a positive ID on Doc William F. Carver and found another photograph of a second man who had previously been roughly identified as C.A. Burgess, an interpreter associated with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West.
My first step was to determine if the identification for C.A. Burgess was accurate. With a little bit of internet sleuthing, I found a treasure trove of information, a blog about Pawnee Indian Medicine Co. posted only days before. Mixed in between images of beautiful antique bottles, was a description of my illusive C.A. Burgess and a photograph with original captions of his brother, Henry Edwin Burgess, and two Native Americans, White Eagle and Spotted Horse. It was amazing how quickly the image of six unidentified individuals resolved into a photograph of people with reliable identifiers. Even better was learning the amazing back story of the Burgess brothers growing up near the Pawnee Reservation in Nebraska and selling snake oil and patent medicines.
My advice for finding out more about your own photographs is to become familiar with them. If possible, cross reference images with similarities and let the clues found within lead you to identify unknowns in other photographs. And last but not least, ask questions. Often other people can point you in the right direction with your search. Good luck!