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How to Analyze a Historic Photo in 5 Steps

Updated: Apr 2, 2020

Today I would like to introduce Luke Sprague to our audience.  Luke Sprague operates HistoryMint.com, a private historical research firm specializing in military history.  Luke Sprague donates time each week to the Latah County Historical Society to assist in reference requests and acquisition appraisals.  This is one such acquisition appraisal which Luke Sprague took the reigns on to determine if LCHS should acquire this photograph.


When a member of the community brings in any type of object into the Latah County Historical Society, there is an investigation to determine how that object fits into the collection. Without the right information, those deciding which objects to add to the collection would face an insurmountable task. Therefore, it is crucial to understand the facts, the history, and historical opinions surrounding each object in order to access its historical value to the collection. In this post, we are going to follow the investigation into a photograph donated by a community member. Here are the five steps I use to research an object—often moving back and forth between the steps.



This is the image donated by a community member.


Step 1: Ask questions


This may seem like an obvious thing to do, but not everyone does it. When a member of community walks in, ask them what is this thing? Where did you find it? Who found it? When did you discover it? What would you like done with it? What research have you already completed on the object and may we have a copy of it? Often, this series of questions reveals important details that help with later research. In this example, by following up with a phone call, I determined that this framed photograph had been found in a garage wall during a remodel. The community member told me he was not related to anyone in the photograph, nor did he know much beyond what he had told me already.


Step 2: Focus your analysis


Key to success in any research is clearly defining the question you are asking. Write down or at least know in your head what question you are trying to answer prior to starting any historical research. Focusing on the question you are trying to answer will determine the speed with that you arrive at the answer. I use the “five Ws” to zoom in on a particular topic: who, what, when, where, and why. In this First World War photograph example the question we are trying to answer is, “Do the men in this picture have any particular relationship with Latah County? Or does the image offer a compelling historic narrative that will improve the Latah County Historical Society collection?” Please note, this does not mean you cannot change your question or revise it, but this technique will tend to focus your efforts and prevent drifting into irrelevant topics.


Step 3: Examine the object carefully


Carefully look at the object and see what details it exhibits. In the case of the above photograph, a closer look provides a wealth of information that makes clear its origin. Look at the below close-up photograph and look at the men’s boots in the front row, notice how they are the same except for one?



 If you look carefully at the center of the photograph with a magnifying glass, you will find a man sitting down in the center of the first row with black boots, he has bright-gold acorns on his hatband, and no one else has them; this is likely their commanding officer.



As a standard practice, the commanding and/or senior non-commissioned officer would sit in the center of a photo such as this. The officer also wears rank insignia on his shoulders and the “U.S.” brass on his collar, whereas the enlisted soldiers wear circular brass “U.S.” emblems on their collars.



The branch insignia on this officer is compelling evidence. The branch insignia designates what a particular officer specializes in, and in this case, you can just make out the aviation propeller supported by two wings.


The branch insignia of the officer combined with where he is sitting indicates that this is some type of aviation unit.


Next, note the text in the lower left, “Section H, A.S.M.S. Kelly Field, Tex 12-7-18.” This text alone reveals the photographer likely took the photo at Kelly Field, Texas on December 7, 1918 with men wearing First World War United States Army uniforms. For now, set aside the text “Section H, A.S.M.S.,” we will come back to that later.



The lower right corner of the photograph shows that this is a “Photo by Stead,” likely an Army photographer or as it turns out in this case, a photographer under contract to the Army.



Color enhanced image of the back of photograph

The back of the photograph shows that, “From Chas A. Stead [illegible] Kampann BLDG San Antonio, Texas, Phone Travis 2028” likely took this photograph.



Also on the back of the photo are a negative number, date, price, and significantly, what appears to be someone’s surname, “Zinsser.” There is also something written underneath “Zinsser” but it is not clear what it is, looks like “Cui…mnd.”


Step 4: Use research to learn more about the object


After examining the object itself, it is time to use research to discover more about the object. Research on each object often is exhaustive in nature to where you reach a point of diminishing returns, limited by budget and available labor. The depth of historical research can potentially be unlimited; however, at some subjective point, you (as the researcher) will know that you have found as much detail as is relevant. In my opinion, the researcher is looking to “paint a picture” of the past that often is only 75 to 85 percent accurate and beyond this return on effort can drop off significantly. This is the art of historical research, finding that “sweet spot,” where a somewhat accurate image of the past is created at a reasonable cost.


I recommend less experienced researchers start with a structured search plan that leads your research through specific search tools and known resources. After more experience, I think you will find that you will develop a sixth sense or instinct about where specific objects and details can be found. This “gut” instinct can be extremely valuable as it grows over time—listen to it! Organization is fundamental to successful historical research; I strongly suggest a note taking system, a filing system, and a formal documentation system.


Specifically for this photograph, with a little bit of research we learn that the Army used Kelly Field Texas as a new Aero Squadron training facility for the First World War. In the First World War, Aero Squadrons were still part of the Army Signal Corps and had just begun to make the transition to a separate branch within the Army. The Signal Corps linkage harkened back to the Army using balloons for reconnaissance, observation, and signaling. Between 1917 and 1918, the Army trained thousands of pilots, mechanics, and support personnel at Kelly Field, Texas. Of particular interest to us, are the Mechanical Service (M.S.) Squadrons that trained mechanics for wartime aircraft. These “school house” units turned out thousands of students each month during the First World War.