Living moments

Many of us cherish the notion that historical photographs capture a frozen moment in time. Upon more detailed examination, though, studio pictures sometimes possess more artifice and contrivance than would have been expected. Take, for instance, these paired images of my great-great-great-grandparents, Reuben Paine and Lovicy Hall.

They came to me without caption from a handsome late-Victorian album with pre-fitted picture slots. What a treasure! Reuben’s picture – from Hawes Studio, 68 Purchase Street, New Bedford – dates from after 1877, when the studio was located at that address.[1] Lovicy’s image, interestingly, comes from the Noah Gifford studio, located at 54 Purchase Street, after 1879. The problem here is that she died in March 1878, age 56. Her facial features are exactly as they appeared in an earlier image, from Henry Hatch’s Studio (at right).

Coincidence? I think not. Enlarging the Gifford photo reveals retouching: The photographer added the curls, scarf, and different pin over the first image. Thus, after Lovicy’s death, Gifford fabricated Hatch’s picture into one slightly more elegant. The practice of refashioning family pictures as post-mortem memorials was more common than I realized. As another example, one-of-a-kind daguerrotypes from the 1840s and ‘50s were photographed again and made into multiple copies of cabinet style photographs of the 1870s and ‘80s. Reuben Paine’s sister, Adaliza (Paine) Dunn, died in 1885, age 51. Her photograph (at left), in her age and hairstyle, does not match the late 1870s, from Hawes’s imprint. Adaliza, as she appears here, was only in her twenties. Perhaps, after her death, several members of her family wanted her picture. Today several descendants possess an “original” of this made-over picture.

Reuben Paine, with his trademark Shenandoah beard, did not sit for any other studio pictures, but that feature allowed me to pick him out of a crowd in an unlabeled group picture tossed in a box and forgotten for a century.

There he stands, at left, with a summer hat and umbrella. Knowing Reuben lived with his daughter, Mary B. Sylvia, and her family in Marion, Massachusetts, led me to identify his four Sylvia grandchildren to his right: Isabelle, b. 1880; Susan, b. 1882; Marian, b. 1887; and Reuben, b. 1885. Marian is my great-grandmother. As I have stared and wondered what this group occasion represents, I have not yet given up on rescuing one more person from the oblivion of anonymous faces. Someone else out there may have another copy of this picture.

In her youth, my paternal grandmother Annie Cassidy (1892–1964) loved to have her picture taken. Several years after her death, one of her friends gave my father this charming small image, circa 1912.

The picture came with a wonderful story from the donor. On the day Annie and her friend went to a Fall River portrait studio, they exchanged their work dresses for the muff, stole, and hat the photographer provided. Without this context, someone might think my grandmother was an affluent Edwardian lady instead of someone who toiled in a cotton mill. Of course, I could pick my grandmother out of a crowd anytime. Here is a snapshot taken at Island Park, Rhode Island, circa 1908, that sails much closer to truth, but not in every aspect.

My grandmother sits at right, holding an oar; her sister, Mary, is second-from-left.

Between my grandmother and great-aunt are two sisters, perhaps named Frain, possibly first-generation children of County Mayo immigrants. The family joke is that Annie could not swim, so I may never know if this is an action shot or a pose for the person holding the camera!


[1] A wonderful resource for me in this endeavor: Ronald Polito, ed., A Directory of Massachusetts Photographers 1839–1900 (Picton Press, 1993).

Michael Dwyer

About Michael Dwyer

Michael F. Dwyer first joined NEHGS on a student membership. A Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists, he edits Vermont Genealogy. His articles have been published in the Register, American Ancestors, The American Genealogist, The Maine Genealogist, and Rhode Island Roots, among others. The Vermont Department of Education's 2004 Teacher of the Year, Michael retired in June 2018 after 35 years of teaching subjects he loves—English and history.View all posts by Michael Dwyer