How Bad Photos Can Make Good Genealogy
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by Denise May Levenick, The Family Curator Sometimes you don't have a choice when it comes to finding your ancestor in old photographs. You are happy to take anything, even if it's a tiny face in a crowd of college grads or a stern-faced soldier in the back row of long panorama. Group photos present unique challenges for the genealogist. Snapshots are often poorly composed and people may be blurred or hidden behind others' shoulders or heads. Amateur photographers may have had difficulty including everyone in the frame, leaving some folks cut off at the edges. Photos can also suffer from basic problems like back lighting, glare, or poor composition. I found this 1964 snapshot in one of my grandparents' old albums. The book had fallen apart and the some of the flip-style plastic photo pages were water damaged over the years. As I removed this picture from the album, I was intrigued by the handwritten caption along the border: PHOTO: 314 Reunion; Denise Levenick Photo June 1964, 314 Supply Train ? Co. E 89 Div. Reunion, Hastings, Neb. The poorly-framed color snapshot shows a group of eleven men standing in front of a leafy background. It's a great shot of the trees. The men are cut off mid-thigh, but it doesn't matter to me. There's my grandfather Walter G. May, standing fourth from the left with his WWI buddies. But who are the other men' Handwritten captions in the photo album gave me a clue that Walter was stationed at Camp Funston for basic training. Gathering Background Information Using I searched for ?314 supply train co. e 89 div' and found a list of likely candidates for the 1964 Reunion photo in a regimental history archived at the Missouri Digital Heritage website, The Three hundred and fourteenth motor supply train in the world war: an account of the operations of the supply train of the 89th division from its organization until its demobilization, including maps and complete rosters and appendices. The public-domain book was available for download, and included the company roster for 89th Division Company E. There was my grandfather's name, listed under Chauffeurs. Crowdsourcing the Caption You may have heard the advice to search your ancestor's F-A-Ns, or Friends, Associates and Neighbors, an acronym coined by professional genealogist Elizabeth Shown Mills, and it's a good plan for advancing this identification project. I am guessing that my grandfather's closest friends might have been have also been assigned as Chauffeurs, so I plan to search online trees on Ancesstry to find others researching those names and share my scanned reunion photo. To clearly capture the detail in each face it's a good idea to use a higher scan resolution of 1200-2400. This makes it possible to enlarge the individual faces without losing clarity. I also like to add an identification key directly on the photo using my computer or tablet photo editing program. This makes it easy for people to respond with names and more information. I know that I'm more likely to get feedback to my photo if I make it easy to tag faces and contact me with information. My overall plan includes:

  1. Scanning at high resolution to get the best quality image, and saving as a JPG to same file size.
  2. Adding a meaningful filename, for example: 314supply-train-reunion_1964.jpg. I also like to embed my name and email address in the metadata.
  3. Adding a caption area that includes an identification key with numbers for each person. I might do this in a Word document or in a photo editing program.
  4. Including everything I know about the photo and the people pictured.
  5. Sharing the photo as bait' to find others researching the men of the 89th Division, Company E.
You can see examples and a step-by-step tutorial for adding the captions and an Identification Key at The Family Curator, Hey Soldier, What's Your Name' Finding Photos of Grandpa's War While I wait for someone to see my photo and recognize an unidentified face, I searched for more information on Ancestry and partners Fold3 and To learn more about the 314th Supply Train, I searched Fold3 for documents and photos. fold3-browse   Using the Browse function, I selected WWI and scrolled down to select > WWI Panoramic Unit Photos (FREE). Searching through the alphabetical list, I located a wonderful panoramic image of Camp Funston in Fort Riley, Kansas. camp fustom Browsing the image sets on Fold3 gave me a new appreciation for my grandfather's wartime experience and some of the sights he may have witnessed. Although Walter's Company is not included in Fold3s images, you may find your WWI ancestor pictured with his own regiment. The large collection of company photographs reminded me to add a Fold3 Watch notice to be notified if photos of Company E are added in the future. Grandpa in the News Next, I turned to and found several articles and an interesting map of World War I training camps that included Camp Funston in Kansas. News clippings list details about troop activities and movement. A brief article in The Lincoln Star (Lincoln, Nebraska) on Tuesday, 9 October 1917 hints at the popular mood of the time: To Cheer the Boys On the Way. Walter G. May is one of seventeen Polk County men named to receive a share in the $170 gift from county residents and businesses. Farewell Gift, Farewell Gift,   In only a short time I had a better idea of Walter's war service and many clues for future research about the regiment. The public domain images will be interesting illustrations in the photo book I'm creating as a gift for my dad. Captions, charts, maps, and a short narrative will help tell the story of Walter's wartime experiences. The Waiting Game Anyone who has publicly shared a family tree as cousin bait' knows that it may be months or even years before someone stumbles on your photo and responds with new information. I'm hoping that if I nudge the line' occasionally with new blog posts or sharing, with a little luck and patience, I might yet identify the men of Company E who met again one June day in 1964.
  About the author: Denise May Levenick is the author of How to Archive Family Photos: A Step-by-Step Guide to Organize and Share Your Photos Digitally and publisher of website.