Have you ever looked through someone’s photo album and didn’t know who the people were? The owner of the album may have said, “Wait for me – I need to explain those pictures.” That may have been fine at the moment, but what happens when the owner is no longer around to narrate? That’s what I run into many times when I am accessioning photographs here at the museum. Unless someone has labeled them, we have no way of knowing who the people are, when or where the photo was taken, or what the circumstances were surrounding the photograph. Once in a while someone will know something about it, and occasionally we can make an educated guess about some aspects, but without labels we are often at a loss. That means the significance of the photograph is lost forever, and I find that very sad.
Recently we received a large number of portraits from the late 1800s or early 1900s, and not one of them was labeled. The people look very interesting, but we have no idea of who they are or even if they were from Morrison County. All of these people were important to somebody and they may have been well-known in their day, but now no one knows who they are. I have run across this problem in my own family’s photographs. I’ve looked through my grandma’s old photo box and I didn’t know who any of the people were. I didn’t even recognize Grandma in the pictures because she looked very different when she was young. I’ve also run into many pictures of relatives that I’ve heard of but have never seen. I wouldn’t have known that these were the same people if Grandma hadn’t been there.
Many times we get photos of events, parades, etc., and we can tell that it was the Fourth of July, but what year – 1880 or 1910? 1940 or 1955? A photo comes to mind where there was a group of women and a parade float in front of the old court house in Little Falls. The women were part of an organized group, but no one here had ever heard of the group, and we could not date it in order to try to find out what its significance was. And once again, there were all those nameless faces.
So, by now you may be wondering, “What can I do to prevent this calamity?” Well … identify your photographs! The best way is to write on the back in pencil. Ink pen will eventually bleed through to the front of the photo and basically destroy it. Write down the name of the person or place photographed, the location, and the date. If there is any special meaning for the photo, be sure to note that too.
Finally, if you want to be sure your pictures of an important event will last, take some in black and white. Color photos are very nice, but they will fade in less time than you might think. Some improvements are being made, but for right now black and white is your best bet for longevity. If you plan to use color (I still haven’t been able to give it up), tests have shown that so far the best paper to have your photos printed on is Fujicolor SFA3. It fades the least and holds colors truer than the other photographic papers.
The greatest benefit of having identified photos is that future generations will be able to see what you looked like, instead of having a faceless name or a nameless face.
By Julie Tomala
Copyright 1996, Morrison County Historical Society