What the heck are they doing?

Image A. “Spirit of Wyoming”

We all have them. Yes, those stacks of old photographs passed down to us. They are images from someone else’s life; what can be daunting is that these are pictures we have to appraise even when we know nothing about what they mean. Often disorganized, unidentifiable, and fading, we can’t quite bring ourselves to put them out for the mid-week trash collection. It just isn’t who we are.

In going through my grandmother Alta Sage Lee Dixon’s old photographs, I understand that many of the people in her pictures may always remain unknown to me. Yet I can’t help wondering if there aren’t patterns in her collection. I’m resolved to try and put these “pictures of unknowns” into at least a few “photographic categories.” After all, this is my grandmother’s life – so maybe if I understand how she pictured her own collection, I might understand more about her.

I decided I wouldn’t try and categorize any professionally done photographs, my reason being that I wanted to look deeper into the pictures and not  just study random faces – my hope being to see what people on ‘both sides’ of the picture might be experiencing. In addition to this, I didn’t want to approach any of her photographs in terms of “What are they thinking?” To do so just doesn’t seem fair. Rather, I’ve decided instead to go with a few variations on the question “What the heck are they doing?”

Image B. “The Kodak Baby”

I’ve discovered that largest category of photos in my grandmother’s collection is that of babies and small children. This must be a universal rule in for picture taking – the challenge of capturing a child’s image.  Image A, above, was my favorite. I mean, who can resist a little girl sitting on a car with her brother behind the wheel? Since I don’t know who the little girl is (I suspect it is Cousin Edna…), I’ve decided to call this photograph the Spirit of Wyoming as her confident stare (and brother’s mischievousness) reflect those rough and tumble days of my grandmother’s home state – and her youthful spirit.

Image B I found a bit disturbing, at least by today’s standards. I’m guessing that whoever took the picture didn’t leave the baby at the Kodak store, although the baby does look a wee bit abandoned. I suspect the owner or employee of this establishment thought it expedient to pose the baby thusly – maybe to help sell more film? Is it only a coincidence that this is the shop where my grandmother first worked?

Image C. “Children of the Corn”

Image C: Whoever took this image may have forgotten that there was a child hiding in the squash patch. (The cat does not look happy to have been included in this photographer’s mélange.) I have to admit that I like this picture overall as it has a sort of “Where’s Waldo” feel to it. 

Image D. “Lady on the stairs”

Image D brings a whole new meaning to “Would you leave your child with her?” I found almost everything about this picture to be peculiar. The child looks as glum as the dark light surrounding the woman at the top of the stairs. Even the fascia’s scalloped trim looks menacing to me. I’m disturbed by the idea that my grandmother owned this picture and even more so that the lady and poor child are probably my kin.

Image E. “The Stalwart Sage Women”

Okay, I had to include this one, which probably isn’t fair to do. I do recognize a few of these handsome women (at least the younger ones), but there is something a bit unsettling about seeing my grandmother and my great-aunts (yes, I said “great,” not “grand”) in wading boots. Whatever are they setting about to do? I think it is safe to say that this was not a glamour shot. Indeed, why must they all look so rugged? (Sorry, Nana…)

Image F. “The Great Outdoors”

After staring at Image F for quite some time, and not recognizing one soul, I realized that I must be looking at a wedding party – by a small flower in the bride’s hair. I do suspect that one of the men standing to the very far right may be the sheriff, as they all have that lawman’s look. Perhaps a shotgun wedding?

Image G. “What the heck are they doing?”

Last but certainly not least is my prize contender for “What the heck are they doing?” I give the photographer credit for capturing the exact moment “junior” fires off his shot gun. I don’t understand the whole teepee thing or why a family that lived in a perfectly good log cabin (see Image F above) needed to pitch a tent!


Photographs from the collection of Alta Sage Lee Dixon (1909–2004).

About Jeff Record

Jeff Record received a B.A. degree in Philosophy from Santa Clara University, and works as a teaching assistant with special needs children at a local school. He recently co-authored with Christopher C. Child, “William and Lydia (Swift) Young of Windham, Connecticut: A John Howland and Richard Warren Line,” for the Mayflower Descendant. Jeff enjoys helping his ancestors complete their unfinished business, and successfully petitioned the Secretary of the Army to overturn a 150 year old dishonorable Civil War discharge. A former Elder with the Mother Lode Colony of Mayflower Descendants in the State of California, Jeff and his wife currently live with their Golden Retriever near California’s Gold Country where he continues to explore, discover, and research family history.

23 thoughts on “What the heck are they doing?

  1. Nothing better than to have a bunch of old pictures to enjoy & create stories about. Good job!
    Always enjoy our blogs.

  2. I absolutely love the way the author has decided to keep these photos of unknown people and created the titles and little stories to go behind them. My family also has many of my grandmother’s photos with unidentified people, and now, I will go back and look at them with a new light! Many thanks.

  3. Image 3 “Sage Women” looks more like the grandmother and her sisters, not the grandmother with her aunts – thus they’d be GRANDaunts (same generation as the GRANDmother.

  4. Aren’t these photos fun! If we’re lucky enough to have letters, and a completed tree of descendants, even more information can be developed. Reference books of clothing styles can also help with dates.

    1. I too have a photo of a horse hitched to a wagon with a notation under it “Old Dan”; no one in my family has any idea as to the source of the photo nor the location. Gotta love on-going unsolvable genealogical mysteries.

  5. I have a photo of an older couple that came down from my father-in-law’s family – a German couple (professional photo in Germany) – no idea who they are. But since the photo was kept for so long it must be family. In my album it is titled: Germany Mystery Couple. I couldn’t throw it away

    1. I have two group photos. Also on my German side. I have no idea and neither does my research cousin who they are. And yet, we keep them. Maybe someday.

  6. Reading this makes me so glad I spent a rainy day long ago with my mother labeling all of her photos. And that after she died and we were cleaning out her house, I snatched the trash bag my brother was throwing the “useless” old pictures in.frlom him and took them home. I almost lost the tinyypes and the photo of my ggggrandmother.

  7. Enjoyed the photos and the comments, but was “disturbed” by all your being “disturbed” by the photos. Remember, we can’t judge what others did ages ago by today’s standards or “philosophies.” Especially with today’s political climate, it’s important to remember that historical events and people need to be understood in terms of the social customs and beliefs of THAT time, not our time. Don’t project your own 21st century biases onto your ancestors; strive to understand who they were and what they did as people of their own era. You’ll be much happier and less “disturbed” if you do!

  8. I have many photos like your’s of “unknown people” and I also have some “what the heck are they doing?” photos and I know who the people are. Wish they were still available to ask “what were you doing?”.

  9. Jeff, I inherited “tons” of old photos that were mostly mysteries until home scanners became common. I’ve since had countless hours of fun enlarging them! At a high resolution and using modern photo enhancement techniques, I’ve unlocked many family quirks/secrets. A favorite is my dad’s childhood habit of sticking out his tongue just as the photographer snapped the pic, which couldn’t be seen in the low-res prints of the day. A scanner is also a cheap way to generate prints from old b&w negatives which back then were the same size as the positive. I did this when there no original prints with the negs, and have been ever thankful that I resisted the urge to toss those “orphan” negs when I first got them in the 1980s!

  10. I love old pictures! Even if I can’t figure out who’s in them or what they are doing. I agree the lady in the plaid dress in Image E and G is the same woman. I think in Image E, she might be the mom of at least some of the other women. Some may be friends or cousins. Image G seems to be from some time later. The dress is worn and stained, and the hat, so jaunty in Image E is not so perky in Image G. I think the kids are grandkids, and, with the boy shooting the gun, the teepee could have been for playing “cowboys and Indians.”

    Image E seems to me to be some sort of sporting event for the women to be wearing those boots and the knickers. The cloche hat seems to date it in the 20s to me. I have pictures of my grandmother (b. 1911) and her sisters in the late 20s wearing the same style hat. In the photo the family has driven out into the pasture for something. Women in the 20s didn’t wear pants, so there was some reason for the attire. And the three women in knickers (from the left #1, #3, and #5) appear to be dressed alike, dark knickers and white shirts or blouses. Looks like some sort of uniform for a team activity?

    By the way, my grandmother’s first job was at a drugstore where they developed film, and we have some pictures that were taken by people who brought film to the shop. It’s no one we know or are related to, but there are events that were newsworthy at the time and she just happened to be in a position to get a duplicate photo of it. There may be some totally unrelated photos in your grandmother’s collection as well.
    Thanks for sharing!

  11. Your posts are always interesting! Love this one, especially because I can relate with so many similar pictures. My grandmother’s maiden name was Ricard, but I have seen it spelled Record . Thanks for the post

  12. Each “unknown” photo contains a wealth of visual information not related to the identification of the people in the photo. Costumes, architecture, vehicles, ways of life in bygone eras are all depicted in these “unknown” photos.

    The only ones I would consider tossing would be fuzzy close ups of unknown babies, unless the costume was really different.

  13. I did the same thing with my family pictures I collected over the years ,from birth to my wedding. I am next to oldest of 12 and we moved a lot. So I have pictures of schools and friends. 280 pages of: “People,Places, and Happenings”title of my book. Every picture has a meaning. Enjoying that it is finally done. Starting on the next one. Thanks for sharing your news..

  14. Hi Sue, in addition to working at the Kodak shop, Alta Sage was also an aspiring of “want-to-be” photographer and “cub reporter” for the local newspaper. I suspect that the baby was a niece or nephew, and that Alta was probably just attempting to hone her skills – making the baby an unwitting pawn!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.