Photo sleuth- Archivist tracks history in the details of old pictures


Peggy Goertzen, director of the Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies at Tabor College, displays several old photographs ready for analysis. Goertzen developed her skills for her job and because she?s ?always been fascinated by photographs.?

Photography is used to capture special moments, document momentous events, entertain and inspire.

But what about as a research tool?

Peggy Goertzen, director of the Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies at Tabor College, analyzes photographs to aid in historical research.

?Photographs are a marvelous tool for documenting social history, business history, family history,? Goertzen said.

With her job at CMBS, Goertzen said people come to her with unidentified photographs and ask her to determine the age and the people in the photo.

?Once you determine an approxi?mate date or decade?even a 10-year period helps?it helps you to identify who the people are within your family grouping,? Goertzen said.

Determining dates

Dates are determined by the type of photograph as well as visual clues?clothing, footwear, headwear, position, spatial relationships, buildings, props and location.

Goertzen begins her analysis by looking at clothing.

?There are some tricks with that,? she said.

For instance, she said some hat styles and hairstyles were popular only for a few years.

?Some photographs have very usable, helpful clues,? Goertzen said.

But even those tell-tale signs can be misleading, making some analysis difficult.

?You always have individuals who don?t change with the times,? she said. ?For instance, you will have a woman who still likes to wear clothes that were fashionable 30 years before. So you have some glitches.?

The CMBS archives has collections of photographs that are unidentified, Goertzen said.

?(In some photographs) the clues are so tenuous you?re afraid to speculate on them,? she said. ?You look at everything you can? each bit of evidence?and you still can?t come up with a really good guess.?

To help the center identify the unidentified photos, the center?s bi-annual newsletter contains a ?mystery photographs? section.

Goertzen puts a circa date as well as a description with the photo. In many cases, newsletter subscribers have been able to identify people in the print.

?People will look and people will write in: ?I know that?s my grandfather or my great-aunt,? or, ?I knew this lady from across the road in Inman, Kansas??and that works.?

Her cup of tea

Goertzen said that while she enjoys analyzing any photograph from the 1870s through the Great Depression, studying Russian Mennonite photographs is her favorite challenge.

?I?m especially fond of the Russian Mennonite clothing story,? she said. ?I use photographs to document those changes.?

Goertzen traces the changes in clothing from the 1870s through the 1920s, beginning with first-generation immigrants and continuing through second and third generations.

The clothing of the Mennonite immigrants is simple, humble European peasant attire, Goertzen said.

?Their clothing is dictated more by practice than by fashion,? she said. ?They?re not looking for style, that?s not important at all. Their faith determines their attire rather than fashion.?

Because clothing was faith-based for the immigrants, Goertzen said the women are always seen in photographs wearing head coverings.

?They?ll never take the head coverings off in public because they believe wearing a head covering is an act of submission to God and to their husband,? she said.

But, Goertzen said, the daughters of the immigrants soon adopted a new trend.

?Instead of having full head coverings, where you have no ears and no hair showing, the head coverings get smaller and smaller, get higher and higher on the head, showing more of the face and hair,? she said.

By 1900, the women would wear a head covering or a large bow only until they were married.

?After that they relegate the covering to the closet or the dresser drawer,? Goertzen said.

Female analysis easiest

Although each photograph has many elements that lend to analysis, Goertzen said it is easiest to determine dates using the women rather than the men who are pictured.

?If you have a man by himself in a photo, it?s much more difficult because men are much slower to change their style of clothing,? Goertzen said. ?They?ll wear that same suit all the time.

?So it?s much easier with women to look at their hairstyle, their clothing, hats, jewelry, how they?re poised, how they?re arranged.?

Goertzen said clothing is the most effective of all the clues.

?It?s very much a detailed study, a detailed analysis, because every aspect means something in the photograph if you let it,? she said. ?If you let it talk to you, it will tell you. It will tell you.?

Advice to a novice

Goertzen is a self-taught photo analyst and got into the profession because of her job.

?When people come in and ask you questions, you try very hard to learn answers,? she said.

But, she added, ?I?ve always been fascinated by photographs anyway.?

Photo analysis is an important skill because it helps with the documentation process for different historical aspects, Goertzen said.

?We have all types of photographs besides just the obvious family history,? she said. ?Photographs are used for documentation of all sorts of disciplines: history, sociology, anthropology.?

Goertzen said it is important for the novice to understand the history of the time period being studied, because many clues are tied to historical and societal elements.

She also said novice photo analysts should saturate themselves with photographs.

?Immerse yourself in the study of photographs,? she said. ?It?s a bit like they tell you how to find a counterfeit dollar: If you handle real money, genuine money, enough, over and over and over again, you?ll be able to feel (the counterfeit.)

?But it?s the same thing. If you just immerse yourself in the photographs themselves, you?ll learn.?

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