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IF you’re interested in the ancestor business then the Public Records Office Publications Catalogue is the one for you. After titles on Tracing Ancestors Catholic, Irish, Scottish and Nonconformist, new for July is Tracing Your Naval Ancestors and later this year is Tracing Your West Indian Ancestors. If you’re a secret agent buff then the Secret Agent’s Handbook of Special Devices WWII offers the original and peculiar catalogue from which agents selected all their weaponry and disguises for secret missions including shoes that left barefoot prints.

Here, however, we have a guide to researching that endless shoebox of social history, old family photographs.

Our family albums bring us face to face with our ancestors; the faces of our own unremembered past. As Walt Whitman said: “There is always, to us, a strange fascination in portraits. We love to dwell long upon them – to infer many things from the text they preach.”

This book traces the rise of popular photography, from portraits of people in the 19th century – photography for the people – to snapshots by people in the 20th – photography by the people – and suggests how we can date and interpret the images created.

Chapter 3, The Rise of Popular Photography, discusses the Visit to the Photographer, a significant event in Victorian life. The reception rooms were temples of ornamental plasterwork, velvet and gilt, with changing rooms, maids in attendance and cosmeticians at the ready. Suitable clothes were provided; the shining starkness of a white shirt front sometimes having a piece of black cloth draped over it, which was then whisked off part way through the exposure. Blue seemed unnaturally pale, green and red looked black. Patterns won approval. The studio was referred to as “the operating room” and was frequently on the roof, to make the best use of light. Clients sat, immovable for up to three minutes and submitted to the garrotte-like support of the headrest or neck clamp.

With plenty of black and white illustrations, many of the cartes de visite or postcards, this little book also advises how to look after photographs and concludes with a series of case studies spanning some 80 years, examining the way in which photographs can be dated and interpreted. One for social historians and professional and amateur photographers, the author has written a number of books on old photographs.