Consanguinity: (kŏn'săng-gwĭn'ĭtē) , relationship by blood, whether linear or collateral.

Primarily concentrating on my Browning family from Harrison County, Ohio (and their subsequent move to Crawford County, Illinois) but I've got Plymell, Crago, Eagleton, Garrard, McConnell, Nichols, Swan, Nevitt, Huls, Markee, Depperman, Papstein/Popstein and Hamilton in there too. And that's just the beginning......

Monday, April 5, 2010

More Updates: The "Mystery Photo"

I am ashamed.

Back in mid-November, Brett Payne of Photo-Sleuth and I had an interesting correspondence going about a mystery ferrotype in my possession (see my original blog post about the photo here.) He gave me a detailed analyzation of his thoughts about the photo and I never did get around to publishing them before my life took a few turns and I didn't blog for a while.

(The photo is this one here and it would probably be a good idea to click the link and say "Open In A New Tab" so you can switch back and forth to see the photo as you read the analysis.)

I certainly hope he can forgive me for allowing all the time he spent on my photo to go to waste until now! I publish his comments in full now, here, in some small recompense:

"It is clear that the tintype has undergone extensive retouching, not just in respect of the backdrop, but almost every other part of the tintype has received some attention. The clothing is perhaps where it is most obvious, with bows, ties, buttons and watch chains being embellished with blue-green and whitish tints. The edges, lines and folds of the subjects' clothing also appear to have been enhanced in many cases, and some of their faces and hair have received attention, in particular the eyebrows of the left two standing in the back row.

This group of eight, presumably all members of a single family, appear to be seated and standing outside on the grass, directly in front of a wooden fence. The tops of the palings of this fence have received some considerable attention from the photographic retoucher, although it's not immediately apparent why this was done.

Behind the fence is more grass - and perhaps some bare earth - and then, visible only on the right-hand side of the tintype, is the wall of a building constructed from horizontal wooden boards. I presume you would refer to this in the US as a clapboard structure. Although it's clearly a fairly large building, we don't know how large because the edges are not visible. I'm not absolutely sure, but I think that the vertical white stripes or poles have been a retoucher's addition, although it seems likely that they were a reinforcement of something pre-existing. Why else would one paint in a couple of poles seemingly sprouting from the heads of two of the subjects?

The left hand side of the background is much more difficult. After looking at the detailed scan I have little doubt that "church and steeple" have been painted onto a white background on the photo. Why this would have been done, I don't know, but I think that the white background has also been painted in by the photographer. At the base of this white expanse, partly obscured by the picket fence, is what appear to be the lower boards of another building, the one which has been painted out. There are some areas of the white in which I've almost persuaded myself that I can see more of these horizontal boards showing through.

The texture of the surface does vary somewhat, suggesting slightly different textures of painted and non-painted areas. However, the cracking or crazing which you can see tends to extend throughout the photo, right across the apparent boundaries of painted and non-painted areas. These cracks are, I believe, in the varnish which was used to protect the emulsion and have not been significantly influenced by the layers underneath. Note that the colours would have been painted directly onto the collodion surface after it had dried, and later covered by the clear varnish.

You're quite right about tintypes being reverse images, and this brings me to another feature of your photograph. The men's jackets and waistcoats all appear to button left-over-right, i.e. with the buttons on the right-hand flap, which is correct - women's clothing from the 1850s onwards mostly had buttons on the left, and buttoned right-over-left. So ... why are the buttons in this photo accurately portrayed if the tintype was a reversed image? I think it has to do, once again, with the "artistic" embellishments. The photographer retouched the tintype to make it look what he thought of as realistic, and this included correcting the cut of the clothing! I have an interesting example of this in an ambrotype, which I discussed in a previous Photo-Sleuth article here. In that case, the photographer gave the woman an "extra" gold wedding ring, although if you look carefully you can also see the original on the opposite hand.

This is an interesting photograph to research. It was clearly not taken in a studio, and probably not by someone with a high degree of either technical or artistic skill. The arrangement of the presumed family group, although in a fairly classic pose, does not show the refinements which would be characteristic of an accomplished studio artist. The balance of the subjects in the frame is almost there, but not quite. Nor has the photographer managed to set his subjects at ease. They are all facing directly towards the camera with pretty wooden expressions, and do not seem very comfortable.

If I had to guess, I would say that it was by an itinerant or travelling photographer. In the 1890s, traveing photographers still used the tintype process because of the simple methods involved, the small amount of equipment needed, and the relatively low cost of production. It was hard to compete with permanent studios in the production of albumen prints, cartes de visite and cabinet cards, which required far more development and printing facilities, and, of course, used glass negatives which were heavy and cumbersome.

The painting in of what might have been intended as a church and steeple may have been an attempt by the photographer to introduce some sophistication into what was otherwise a rather bleak scene. Whether his clients were happy with the result I suppose we can only surmise, but it is worthy of note that it did survive for well over a century.

He did say he wanted to hear my thought about his analyzation.

I think he's right about the fact that it was an itinerant photographer. I'm very glad to see that his assessment agrees with my own original assessment of c1892. I'm also pleased that I caught at least some of the retouching that was done to the photo. I'd mentioned that I thought the image was reversed but I certainly didn't catch the switched coats!

You know, I can't think of a single thing he said that I don't agree with. Some of that springs from the fact that I don't know half as much about the technical details of photos of this time period to argue, and some from my pleasure and gratitude and the amount of his own time he gave to my little old photo. I don't have words.

When last we corresponded he'd expressed interest in doing a write-up of my photo on his own blog. I would be more than happy for him to do so should he ever be so inclined.

Thank you Brett, from the bottom of my heart.


  1. One of the greatest gifts that I received in this community of geneabloggers is learning about old photographs. Today has been a gift from both you and Brett. Thanks to you both.

  2. No need whatsoever for any apologies, Patti. Real life and other matters sometimes take over, as evidenced by my own extended period of absence from blogging.

    Despite - or perhaps because of - its amateurish nature, your photograph was a very interesting one to explore. I'm grateful for the opportunity, and very pleased that you have found my analysis of some value. There are some photographs that I think we can all learn from, and this is certainly one of them!

    I don't know that I have much to add to what you've written previously and included in this article, so I think I may just restrict myself to a quick pointer on Photo-Sleuth, if you don't mind, and direct people over here. No doubt other readers will pick up some features that we have both missed and add a little to the story!

    [oh, and it's a pleasure, Joan ;-) ]

    Regards and best wishes, Brett

  3. I would like to present you with the Ancestor Approved Award. Please go here to pick it up ==>

  4. I found your blog from the Follow Friday post at Greta's Genealogy Blog. I'm glad she mentioned yours and Brett's blogs. I love old photos and have plenty of them!

  5. I am certainly not a photo expert. But...I've read about, and seen a few, of those photographs where a person who has died is put into a photo with their family. Is it possible that the woman back-left and possibly the man next to her are an example? The woman particularly looks more the age of the woman in front of her--too old to be a daughter and too young to be the grandmother. It could explain the obvious retouching, but I have no knowledge of the techniques used to do that. Even the little boy in the middle-front doesn't look as clear. Crazy idea maybe.