How to analyze a historic photo in 5-steps

​By Luke Sprague

​June 6, 2014

In this post, we are going to follow the investigation into a photograph. Here are the five steps I use to research an object—often moving back and forth between the steps.

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 utilize 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" 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 examine 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.

The color-enhanced 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.

This is why in the photograph above you see the “A.S.M.S.,” an acronym for Aero Squadron Mechanical Service.The “Section H” stands for the new unit identifier created for the unit in July 1918 replacing from the former unit identity, the 244th (II) Aero Squadron.It is unclear why the photographer labelled this photo “Section H,” though it is in all likelihood a mislabeling of “Squadron H,” given that a United States Army section is much smaller (7 to 9 soldiers) than a squadron (usually hundreds of soldiers).

In addition, the United States Army does not designate smaller size units, like sections, with letters, but instead uses numbers.Interestingly, this was also likely the demobilization photograph for this unit as the First World War ended and the majority of soldiers returned home.This newly designated Squadron “H” at Kelly Field Texas of the Aero Squadron Mechanical Service remained in active service from July 1918 to November 1918 with our photograph dated December 7, 1918.Squadron “H” at Kelly Field Texas never deployed to Europe but instead served as a training unit stateside.

Concerning the surname “Zinsser” on the back of the photograph, I had hopes that this would link us back to Latah County, Idaho. In terms of general research techniques, I recommend starting the name search with known and reliable indexes, and then moving on to related organizations. With this photo, the card catalog revealed a small number of Zinsers in Latah County Idaho, but no Zinssers with two “s.” The Past Perfect database indexing the collection closely mirrored what I found in the card catalog.

We also at one point had hopes that the Zinsser name on the photograph might be an ancestor of Elizabeth Zinser, the former first woman President of the University of Idaho, but unfortunately, her ancestors were from Pennsylvania not Idaho.

The birth and death indexes for Latah County Idaho revealed for all practical purposes no Zinssers with either one or two “s” in a lifespan. The obituary files showed no Zinser or Zinsser that would have matched a soldier in the 1918 photograph. All third-party online databases including the First World War draft records for Idaho and Fold3.com show nothing for a various spellings of Zinsser in Latah or surrounding counties. Also problematic, the address the person provided made no sense in terms of their explanation of the discovery; therefore, a property deed search based on the street address made no sense.

Step 5: Explain your findings

This step is self-explanatory; explain to your client what you have found. Often you will find nothing or not what you expect, and though it may not seem like it, this is a result.

For today’s example, I find that at this time the “Zinsser” First World War photograph contains no linkages to Moscow or Latah County. This is a photograph from an Army training or “school house” unit at Kelly Field Texas. This unit, Squadron “H” existed for five months from July 1918 to December 1918 and likely cycled through numerous trainees during that time. Thousands of American men attended these types of training units during the First World War and the majority of the units took photographs like this one.

Soldiers who paid for this photograph may have taken it with them as they moved throughout the country during their lifetimes. The discovery of the photo in Moscow does not imply a strong connection to Moscow or Latah County, Idaho.

Luke Sprague is a historian at HistoryMint and manages the nominations to the National Register of Historical Places for Latah County, Idaho. To find about more about what he does during his working hours click here.