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Dating old photographs requires detective work


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Searching for clues: Joan Hostetler, co-owner of Heritage Photo and Research Services in Indianapolis, will present a program on investigative and interpretive techniques for photographs at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Hancock County Public Library in Greenfield.
Searching for clues: Joan Hostetler, co-owner of Heritage Photo and Research Services in Indianapolis, will present a program on investigative and interpretive techniques for photographs at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Hancock County Public Library in Greenfield.


GREENFIELD — Want to know whether that skinny young man with the cocky smile in the dog-eared photo is Grandpa?

Check his ear lobes.

“Our ears grow, but they don’t change,” said Joan Hostetler, a photo preservationist and archive specialist from Indianapolis. “Our ear lobes stay the same.”

Hostetler presents a free seminar Wednesday at Hancock County Public Library’s central location detailing techniques for dating and interpreting old pictures.

The hour-long program is aimed at helping family historians, genealogists and scrapbookers understand the who, what, where, when and perhaps even why in their family photo collections.

Many of the clues are lurking in plain sight, Hostetler said.

Dating a photo can be as easy as identifying the process used, such as the daguerreotype and tintype of the early and mid-19th century, up through modern forms.

Other clues can be found within the images themselves.

“Curly bangs date to the 1870s, and handlebar mustaches were found in the gay nineties,” she said. “In 1914, Indiana began requiring dates on license plates, so if you can zoom in on a license plate, you might be able to determine when the photo was taken.

“It’s kind of like being a detective.” Hostetler said.

Though the photos themselves might offer leads as to what lies beneath the surface, the easiest way to preserve the past is to take time with a relative who can describe the photographic glimpses of time and record the information now.

“I really stress how important it is to just take a day and sit down with them, to write down as much as they know about the who, what, where and why,” she said.

For Hostetler, it all began when she sat down with her grandmother.

“I still remember the moment,” Hostetler said. “I was in fourth grade when my grandma brought down a box of old family photos. I think we all have an inherent interest in something, and mine is to document and preserve things.”

Hostetler took her interest full time and has been researching and archiving for a living for more than 20 years.

She co-owns Heritage Photo & Research Services in Indianapolis. The company’s client list includes RKO Pictures, the Indianapolis Museum of Art and several historical societies.

Hostetler has also compiled a directory of some 8,000 Indiana photographers, the earliest of which currently date back to 1841, which can also be used to interpret images, she said.

Interested residents are encouraged to bring photos to the library, and questions can also be emailed to Hostetler prior to the workshop at heri tagephotoservices@gmail.com.

In addition to investigative and interpretive techniques, Hostetler will provide a handout on preservation and archiving methods and materials.

The program runs from 7 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at the library, 900 W. McKenzie Road. For more information contact the library at (317) 462-5141.

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