What We See
Photography changes family history
Maureen Taylor, expert on the intersection of history, genealogy, and photography, explains how family photographs are more than images of loved ones, but are also reflections of history.
In a bonnet, with her face framed by rosettes, the well-dressed Dorothy Catherine Draper looks directly into the camera operated by her brother, Dr. John W. Draper of New York. Within months of Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre’s 1839 announcement of his photographic breakthrough in Paris, Draper experimented with the daguerreotype process in America, capturing a likeness of his sister and immortalizing her in what could be the first family photograph. It’s a reminder that images of family members span the history of photography—from Draper’s single daguerreotype to today’s easily duplicated digital snapshots. This portrait also signifies that each of our own family pictures is more than a photograph of a loved one; each one is also a historical document. Our photographs reflect history; they inform us, change our impressions of our relatives, and tell the story of our families.
For years a simple postcard portrait of my maternal grandmother sat on my mother’s bureau. She knew it was her mother, but wasn’t sure when it was taken. The cumulative details present in the image, combined with family history, were what filled in the blanks and told us something more about her and the circumstances behind the taking of the picture. Establishing a time frame for the photo depended on accumulating clues: the photographic method, researching the photographer’s name embossed in the lower right hand corner of the image, and her attire. Photographic postcards first became available in 1899, while city directory listings established that the photographer who made the picture was in business for thirty-seven years beginning in 1903. My grandmother wears a dress with large contrasting buttons and a pair of high shoes, her hair pulled back in a low bun, all popular circa World War I. However there are other elements present in my grandmother’s image that represent her personality. Around her neck is the locket she wore throughout her life and is owned by my mother now. According to relatives, it was given to her by her best friend, whose initials “A.A.” are engraved on one side while my grandmother’s initials are on the other. Pinned to her bodice is a watch she paid for with her earnings from working in a cotton mill.
It’s a seemingly uncomplicated portrait but my grandmother’s accessories illustrate that she was a woman who valued her friends and her independence. Identifying the occasion was clear from studying the facts of her life and estimating her age, but the final clue was the presence of a wedding ring. Every bit of evidence brought me closer to the year it was taken—1916; the year in which she married. Not all couples, back then, posed together for matrimonial images and not all brides wore white. A dress purchased for a single event was not an affordable option for many women, including my grandmother. This economical bride chose to have her picture on a postcard because it served a dual purpose—the format was inexpensive and she could mail copies to family in Quebec. Oral traditions, genealogical facts, and research deepened our impression of her—from a static portrait of a bride to a living woman.
Similarly Draper’s experimental portrait of his sister is an example of what can be learned from an image. Dorothy Catherine Draper posed on the roof of New York University seated in a chair. While this image is an 1893 copy of the original daguerreotype, the details present in this image and the facts of her life are clear. Her high crowned bonnet trimmed with flowers and her dress with tight upper sleeves suggests she fit the demure ideals of her gender and generation. It’s her straightforward gaze that contradicts that assumption. It’s fitting that Draper created a pictorial monument to his sister. In the patriarchal society of the late 1830s and 1840s, Draper’s sister worked as an art teacher to support her widowed mother, two sisters, her brother and his wife. She moved the family from England to America and funded her brother’s medical school education. Her strength of character and will are visible in this portrait.
You can apply the same techniques to search for clues in your own family photographs and to learn more about how your ancestors used photography to document their everyday lives. The full story of a person’s life is often portrayed in a pictorial timeline from birth through death in baby pictures, school portraits, occupational images, wedding poses, and even postmortem images, but they are all icons for a deeper story. In our minds, family photographs become synonymous with a specific point in that person’s life and visually frozen in time in our memories. Yet by discerning the clues in each one, our family pictures not only inform and remind us of the past but also let us see reflections of ourselves, today, in the mirror of our family history.
- Portrait of Dorothy Catherine Draper, 1893
- Daniel Draper
- Read image description
Portrait of Dorothy Catherine Draper
Believed to be the first photographic portrait made in the United States, this portrait of Dorothy Catherine Draper was originally taken by her brother Dr. John W. Draper (1811-1882) in his Washington Square studio at the New York University in 1839 or 1840, within the first year of Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre's announcement in Paris of his invention of the daguerreotype process. Identified as a copy daguerreotype, this reproduction was made by Draper's son Daniel when the original was displayed at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois. The original daguerreotype was damaged during an attempt at restoration early in the 1930s.