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Bringing the Background to the Foreground

Bringing the Background to the Foreground

December 7, 2022

I am not a “car person.”  I have family members who can glance at an automobile and instantly tell you the make, model, and production year of nearly any car they see, but I have to memorize my parking spot to stand even a remote chance at locating my own car in a row of parked vehicles!

I have long since given up feeling badly about myself over this—to each their own strengths—but this lack of interest in automobiles blinded me to the research clues offered to anyone seeking to lock down the dates of photos with vehicles “hiding” in the background of the images. Shame on me.

My dad was a car guy. He loved his family, and he loved his cars. I recently found a collection of photos of my dad over the years, and as I struggled to figure out my dad’s age at the time of each photo, I suddenly noticed that the automobiles he was driving at the time of many of these photos were (literally) parked in the backgrounds of the images. From that point on, it was only a short walk to the car identification “experts” in my living room to get fairly accurate date estimates for each photo. 

Epiphanies exploding left and right, I began to realize just how much other background “noise” I’d been overlooking in our family photos. I suddenly became aware of touristy attractions resting quietly behind family images and realized that many of these attractions could be linked to dates of construction, grand openings, or stages of remodeling. First-run movie titles displayed on marquees, logos of fast-food restaurants and gasoline stations, even the cost of a gallon of gasoline at those stations—all moved to the forefront of my research, offering key clues about the family members photographed in the foreground of these photos.

So, what’s the lesson here? Details matter! While the images of family members warm our hearts, it’s often the items away in the background of these images that help to tell their stories. If you’re trying to assign dates to photos in your family’s archives, consider taking MGC’s How to Date Old Photographs class for more tips on establishing date ranges for photo images. Or, check out any one of a number of books on using family photos for genealogy, such as Maureen Taylor’s Uncovering Your Ancestry Through Family Photographs or Karen Frisch’s Unlocking the Secrets in Old Photographs.

Oh, and if you’re trying to determine your dad’s age in a photo of him washing a (classic) Mustang in the driveway, seek out the nearest car identification expert who knows it’s the hood that separates a ’64 ½ ’Stang from a ’65!

Kim A.
Midwest Genealogy Center

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