Around 10 years ago, I scanned all of my parents’ photographs for them. It was a huge project which I did at my dad’s request. My company Legacy Multimedia was beginning to do some archival projects and I wanted to do this for my parents but also as a way of experimenting with different scanning and archiving techniques as I worked out a process for clients. And I did it all wrong. I’m not going to go into the list of mistakes that I made but there were many.
Over time, I organized and re-organized the structure of the archive and at one point, had one of my employees work on it for a few weeks; sorting out duplicates, and breaking up some photos that were in large page scans. What I meant to do was to sit down and finally get everything sorted out correctly, re-scan the badly scanned photos, meta-tag all the photos, crop and do some light restoration and finally, have a searchable archive with every family in its own folder. It never happened. Every time I started to move toward doing it, I had a huge anxiety attack as I thought about all the things that could possibly go wrong. And I put it off, for years.
A couple weeks ago, in sheer frustration, I called up my good friend CJ who has done this kind of architecture for library collections. We talked for a while about all the problems I was envisioning and she finally said to me, “start all over again.” I rolled my eyes and thought of all that time and work I was throwing away, only to repeat it. She told me to do it the right way, the way I would do it for a client. I had to admit that she was right.
At this point, I’ve done an initial sort and already I am so happy I made this decision.
When I scanned the photos 10 years ago, it was before I had become a genealogy wonk. So although I knew some of the people in the photos, I did not know enough about my family tree structure to identify many of those people. I asked my parents about some of them and they couldn’t remember who they were for the most part. I scanned everything they had, even though some of the photographs didn’t make sense. I figured I would give them back to my parents and they could decide what to do with them.
As I began sorting the photos again over the past few weeks, with both of my parents gone, I became more decisive about which photos to keep and which (gasp) to actually throw away. There were photos of my grandparents on trips with their friends. Bad photos where you could see a blurry image of my grandmother flanked by people who were vaguely familiar friends of theirs. Why did I need these photos? Who would ever ask to see a photo of the women my mother worked with at her accounting position before she met my dad? Guiltily I tossed them in the trash. There were also a lot of variants of the same photograph. I came across a pile of photographs taken of me, at about the age of 1 week, asleep in my stroller. I picked the best one, and threw away the rest. I could hear my dad’s voice saying “ what are you throwing those away for? They are valuable!” But they weren’t. The goal was to pull together the best shots of my family, my ancestors and friends of my family that meant something to us, into a collection that I could pass on to other family members and into the future with each person and location identified.
But then miracles started to happen. I picked up this photograph that I had not previously scanned, and would not have had a clue who it was 10 years ago.
This is a photograph of my great-grandmother’s sister Bessie. I knew it was her because during my research, I found records of her and knew she had had 5 daughters. I immediately recognized her face because she looks amazingly like my own great-grandmother Ester. When I scanned photos 10 years prior, I wasn’t too familiar with Ester’s visage. I had only identified her in one photograph when she was older. But over the past few years, as I’ve researched that branch of the family, I became more aware that some of the photographs that I had were her at various ages. When I was visiting my cousin in New Jersey last year, we went through her family photographs and I immediately spotted this never-seen photograph of my great-grandparents.
This is sort of what happens. After working on these trees, looking at these photos over time, I began to be able to recognize people and identify them in other photos. Soon I was also able to look at a small child and then figure out who she was as an adult in other photos that cousins have sent to me. It’s been fascinating to sort these photos again with a completely new critical eye.
I’m also looking at the backs of photos now (no excuse why I didn’t do that before) and see that many have some information on them about the people in the image. Some don’t tell me much and I have a bunch of photos with only “Kronenberg family” scrawled in my grandmother’s hand in pencil on the back. But that’s a start. As I connect with other cousins in the Kronenberg family, they may have known photos that will help me match faces. I’ve learned so much in the past year about this family that there is nothing to say I won’t find more information going forward.
Some of the photographs were taken in professional studios, and that too has helped me identify who they might be. For instance, this photograph was taken at a studio in Brest , now in Belarus but previously in Russia and before that Poland. Based on the time frame of the photograph, around 1900, and the location of the studio, I’ve deduced that it is of my great-great grandparents, Solomon and Chana Kronenberg. My dad never knew who was in this photo when I asked him, and would have been amazed to know my grandmother had it all this time and they were his great-grandparents.
I am grateful for the knowledge that I have gained in approaching this from the beginning, again, and I can’t wait to really get deep into this project as I’m sure I will discover many more new clues to help me in my search to identify my ancestors!
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I’m so excited! The picture of Shlomo and Chana has been hanging on my hall wall of family pictures for the past 23 years. When friends and family come to it, they ask who these people are. I always told them I didn’t know, but my mother had it and I always found it fascinating. I thought Shlomo looked a bit Mongolian, but I didn’t even know their names…just knew they were probably distant relatives. Was Shlomo Louis’s father? How are you and I related and where do you live? Now I have so many questions and would love to talk sometime about your work…when you have time.
Thank you so much for getting me in touch with my past!
Jody, I know you and I have talked since you wrote this but sadly I am just seeing this comment for the first time. Shlomo and Chana were Louis’s parents, yes. Sadly they didn’t make it to America to be with most of their children and I don’t know much about their life except that the photo shows Shlomo’s hands quite worn as well as his shoes so clearly they didn’t have much money and he worked hard. He does look a bit Asian, which is interesting.