Who’s looking at the birdie?

A picture may speak a thousand words but it can also hold the key to your past. When tracing your family history, old photographs can add a precious human dimension.

Written by local author Angelo Loukakis, Who do you think you are? is a user-friendly guide to assist budding family historians unearth and interpret everything from census information to military service to personal records, including photographs. The latter, Angelo writes, “can be both tantalising and frustrating” – perhaps because they’re blurry amateur efforts, have been sparsely (or wrongly) annotated with names, dates and places, or are in poor condition because of the passage of time.

“Whether the photographs you need to investigate were the work of a professional or just happy snaps, resolving unknown faces and places requires some knowledge of your family history, and a degree of serious sleuthing,” he continues. The following edited extract from Who do you think you are? outlines some detective methods you can try.

Physical appearances

It may seem obvious, but a group photograph of individuals who all appear roughly the same age (or within a decade or two at most) is likely to be of the same generation. Could these people be siblings or cousins? To find out, you may have to enlist the help of one of your senior family members, if you have one. Even if they don’t know every individual, they may know one or two of them, which is all you need to get started.

Then there are people’s ‘looks’. If you think: “Present-day Cousin Jenny looks so much like this [unknown] person here,” it may get you closer to the mark than you would imagine; the two could share genetics. The shape of a person’s face, ears, nose and so on in a later generation can sometimes be enough for making a reasonable guess that the unidentified person in an older photograph is an ancestor of theirs.

What kind of photograph is it?

Of the various photographic techniques developed in the nineteenth century, only a few came into widespread use. The daguerreotype was the most famous of the early techniques and was popular from 1839 to about 1870. If you have a daguerreotype of an ancestor, the date can certainly be narrowed to those few decades before newer films arrived.

Find the photographer

You may have a photograph of an unidentified ancestor taken by one of the street photographers who were once ubiquitous in Australia’s larger cities, or by one of the many earlier photographers who plied their trade from shopfront studios. Being good marketers, both types usually had their name somewhere on the images they produced.

You could be lucky and find that the photographs or their cardboard mounts have an address as well. If not, you could check libraries and archives for a Sands directory – trade and commercial, pastoral and street directories published from the 1860s until 1919, which are very useful for tracing the movements and locations of early businesses (as well as family members). You could also consult a local historical or genealogical society to determine when that photographer was in business and there are one or two histories of photography in Australia which may help.

In the background

There are sometimes hints in the background of old photographs that can help with identification. It was more common for photographs to be taken in studios than inside family homes in the 19th century, unless the family was well-todo. If there is a painted backdrop, you can assume that the photograph was taken in a studio – and sometime before 1910, after which such backdrops became rare (although they were used for wedding photographs until the 1920s).4

If the photograph was taken inside a home, furnishings and ornaments could be studied to indicate an approximate date. Victorian, Art Nouveau and Art Deco are all distinct period styles (with some overlapping, of course). You could also check against any photographs you have for which date and place information exists, to see if the possessions in the undated picture also appear in them.

Very early photographs, especially those before flash was invented (in approximately 1884), were often taken outside due to the low light conditions indoors. In this type of photograph you might be fortunate enough to find a cart or commercial vehicle nearby with a name on its side. And don’t forget to scrutinise what you can see of the nearby surrounds for advertising and street signs, as these can also tell much.


Clothing fashions and hairstyles can help in dating old photographs; start by comparing the clothing worn in an undated photograph with other photographs for which you have dates, to see if there are similarities.

If you are not familiar with early fashions, consult a reference volume or an expert in the field. Many TAFE colleges have fashion and design departments with lecturers who have historical knowledge in the area, and the Eureka Council has a good (and humorous) history of Australian men’s and women’s fashion online at www.eurekacouncil.com.au.

Old photographs sometimes picture people wearing a uniform of one kind or another. Military uniforms are relatively easy to identify but look for other kinds of uniform as well – a nurse’s habit, the special garb of a fraternal association and so on.


If you have some idea of a given photograph’s provenance – who owned it when, and when and to whom it was passed along – you can use what you know of your other ancestors to narrow the possibilities. Ask yourself who was in the immediate circle of the person who had possession of the photograph, as that may give you further names and possibilities to pursue; if that doesn’t work, widen the inquiry to a broader circle of acquaintances.

And, as always, don’t forget to talk to members of your own extended family – they may recognise someone.

Old photographs can add a precious human dimension to family research. This may well turn out to be your experience.


The above article is an edited extract from Who do you think you are? By Angelo Loukakis, Macmillan Australia 2008, RRP $34.95. Available in good bookshops and online.

Printed with permission from the publishers.