Photobooths and Photostrips, from the Paris World’s Fair to your Smart Phone

Photobooths and Photostrips, from the Paris World’s Fair to your Smart Phone

The first working photobooth was unveiled at the Paris World’s Fair in 1889. The concept immediately took hold sparking a flurry of patents and prototypes created over the next three decades.

Josepho and his famous Photomaton

36 years later, in 1925, our modern concept of the photobooth, the “Photomaton” arrived in New York City courtesy of Russian inventor, Anatol Josepho. Josepho opened the first photobooth in his studio on Broadway between 51st and 52nd Streets and crowds as large as 7,500 per day lined up to use the machine for $.25 each.

In the early 1960s, Andy Warhol embarked on a photobooth frenzy, utilizing the cheap photo arcades on 47th and Broadway in Manhattan’s Times Square to photograph his famous clients. In 1963 Harper’s Bazaar featured his images of models in photobooths and turned this former fun pastime into a serious commercial photography tool.

There is something about this century old technology that still captures the imagination. There are hundreds of celebrity photostrips available on the internet, including Jackelyn and John F. Kennedy who had their pictures taken in a photobooth on at least two occasions. In their 2011 -2012 winter collection ads, Chanel posed models in old dingy photobooths under the watchful eye of Karl Lagerfeld.

Old photobooths, like Warhol and the Kennedys used in the 1960s captured photographs of remarkable quality. They had a depth to them that is missing from more modern machines, but yet, they still draw millions of people each year. One author has even used a rented photobooth to create a book depicting dogs in photostrips.

The secret is in the photostrip itself. A playful and artful collection of four images stacked into a vertical line, each showing a different pose.

To achieve this look at home, without a photobooth, Carly Heitlinger from demonstrates on her blog how to make photostrips using Instagram, an application for smartphones that allows users to take square photographs and apply digital filters to them. This is a cool and clever way to get a photobooth look using photographs from your family collection.

To use Instagram to create your family photostrip, follow these easy steps:

  • Choose images of your ancestors where they are posed close together.
  • Using the Instagram app on your smartphone, zoom in on the part of the image you want to the be the focus of your photostrip. If there are several people in the photograph, you can move the field of view around to capture different people.
  • Then, choose the Instagram photo effects that you would like for your images (I prefer black and white or sepia tones)
  • To complete the strip, follow Carly’s instructions.


As a family historian, I’m constantly looking for interesting ways to “package” the many wonderful images I’ve collected. Putting together photos in different combination, whether it be in a photo book or as you see above in the photostrips, can tell a story, bring new life to an old image or just be a playful and different way to share family photos with your relatives.


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Family Reunions III: Collecting and creating heirlooms

Family Reunions III: Collecting and creating heirlooms

This is the third installment of my multi-part article on planning the perfect family reunion. In this series I take you through all the things you will need to know to pull off a rewarding and fun family reunion.

So you’ve picked the location and theme and sent out the invitations. Your relatives will be descending on your ancestral hometown in two weeks. You have lunch and dinner covered and a family portrait planned for the first day, but what on earth are you going to do with all those people for the rest of the weekend? Don’t panic, with some well planned activities, your guests will be entertained and you can gather important facts and photos for your family history research.

Ice breakers

A great way to get the conversation flowing is to begin with an ice breaker. One simple approach is to create flash cards with family trivia. One side of the card has a photograph of the subject and the trivia question, the other side has the answer.

What was Frank Smith’s occupation? Where was great grandma Ford born?

For children they could be about relatives still living that are familiar to them.

What farm animals live on Uncle John’s farm? Where does grandma Laura live? 

This is a useful tool for teaching family history in a fun and engaging way.

Oral history

Oral history recordings are a treasure like no other. More than any other media, capturing the memories of relatives through video and voice recording provides future generations with a personal connection and understanding of their ancestors. Tiny details such as the inflection in someone’s voice, or a slight hesitation before answering a question can tell a listener far more than reading the same words in print.

Family reunions are a perfect time to record oral histories. As your relatives mingle and reminisce about old times, they are reminded of events from their past and will provide richer, more colorful stories.

The most important step in planning an oral history is to prepare your questions carefully. If your relatives are uncomfortable and fidgety in front of a camera, it helps to give them questions in advance so they can develop a script. As they become more comfortable you can ask further questions to extract the information that you need.

One of my favorite tricks for drawing memories out of a person who is uncomfortable or unsure what to say is to show them a photograph from some period of their life, and ask them to talk about that day. You can ask about others in the photograph, where and when it was taken, who the photographer was. Visual clues can play an especially important role in interviewing elderly people who tend to recall events much more clearly when they have a photograph to jog their memory. Don’t worry if the photograph doesn’t produce helpful results, you can always edit the interview later.

For more information about how to conduct oral history interviews, see the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage’s Interviewing Guide.

Photo and document scanning

Photos and documents have a short half-life. They fade, get damaged, and are sometimes lost. An easy, efficient way to gather and digitize them is to ask all of your guests to bring their photographs and documents to the reunion.

Designate a tech-savvy guest to handle the scanning while the older relatives identify the subjects of photographs. If you are expecting a large number of guests, it helps to have multiple scanners and laptops to make this a quick operation. It is important that you decide on a system for how documents and photographs are to be labeled and categorized so they are sortable by date, subject, location or source.

After you scan the photos and documents, you can choose a few of the best and present them in a slide show or craft a beautiful photo album to send to your guests. If you have created a family reunion website, sharing them online allows everyone in the family to view and download the photographs.

Recipe book

Food plays such an important role in our lives that it’s no wonder family recipes are so treasured. But family recipes have a way of getting passed down to one person, leaving the rest of the family empty-handed. Reunions are a great time to gather up all the handwritten recipe cards from family members and create an heirloom cookbook.

There are several sites that offer book design and printing services. My favorite is where you can create a professional looking, colorful cookbook and have it printed in hard or soft cover. They even print book jackets so your family cookbook will be as impressive as your time and creativity allows. Blurb will also stock your book in their online inventory so relatives can easily order their own copy directly from them.

Photo booth

Borrowing from a popular trend among wedding planners, photo booths are an easy and inexpensive way to entertain guests and capture a fun-loving, playful side of your family. They require little work to set up and are an entertaining activity for kids and adults alike.

Your photo booth can be as simple as a single chair with a colorful backdrop and a camera on a tripod. The fun and variation come with the props that you choose. I created the props used in the photos below from free printables by the pretty blog and Oh Happy Day.  Stick-on mustaches make for a charming photograph and are available at most toy stores and costume shops.


Sasha Souza Events created an elaborate wall backdrop for one of their events, with photo frames that guests can look through. If you are handy with a hammer, this makes an appropriate and fun family photograph. A backdrop like this is easy to personalize by including details like an ancestor’s photo on the wall, a family bible or a doily made by your grandmother sitting on a small table just in front of the backdrop.

Sasha Souza Events – photo credit to Elizabeth Messina


Stay tuned for Family Reunions – Part 4. Next time we will explore children’s games to keep all of your younger guests entertained.



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Interview with Tamsen Donker, photographer

Interview with Tamsen Donker, photographer

Tamsen Donker is a professional photographer in the Niagara, Ontario area. Her company, Creative Clicks Photography, specializes in family and child photography and her radiant photographs provide perfect inspiration for anyone planning a family reunion or portrait.

  • Using architectural elements adds interest. Photo credit - Tamsen Donker Using architectural elements adds interest. Photo credit - Tamsen Donker Using architectural elements adds interest to the photograph.
  • Using the "triangle rule" creates a pleasing photo. Photo credit - Tamsen Donker Using the "triangle rule" creates a pleasing photo. Photo credit - Tamsen Donker


Sarah Ashley: I’m thrilled to interview you for my blog. My goal is to encourage people to bring artistic ideas and sensibility to their study of family history. Photography is obviously such a big part of this. There’s a million things we could talk about but I want to focus our interview specifically on photographing family reunions. Before we get started though, tell me a little about yourself. How long have you been a professional photographer? How did you get started? what do you love the best about it?

Tamsen Donker: I am a child of God, a wife, and a mother of (almost) four beautiful children. Photography is something that’s always been in my blood but I never seriously considered really getting into it until I was on maternity leave with my first child. I took a few courses, but quickly realized that I could learn more on my own with the help of Google, forums and lots of practice.

I spent many, many nights going to bed just before my husband would get up for work in the morning…I couldn’t wait to learn, to know more and to improve my skills. It takes time and dedication, especially when you have children underfoot, but I really enjoyed seeing my skills grow and sharing it with others as well.

I just LOVE capturing moments for clients (and my family) that feel like a special, intimate moment but also give a feel of art – something they can hang in their home and enjoy every single day.

Sarah: When it comes to making sure that they’re able to “capture the moment” with photography, what general advice do you have for people planning a family reunion?

Tamsen: First off, I recommend planning a location and time of day that will work well with children if they will be involved. I always prefer to shoot an hour or two after sunrise or before sunset as that light is the most beautiful and flattering BUT it needs to work for the children and if they are young, a session at 7-8 PM might not be the best idea. A morning session would be good in that situation as the kids are well rested, full, and happy. Choose a location that offers some shade and a variety of interesting locations to use as a backdrop. Often when I do family reunion sessions, they’ve traveled and may not know the area too well, so I recommend locations to use as well.

Sarah: Let’s talk candid vs. staged photographs. Reunions would have both. What tips can you give about making sure there are plenty of high quality candid photographs coming out of the event?

Tamsen: When it comes to a reunion, I always do the formal portraits first. This ensures that everyone is fresh, children are clean and happy and then everyone can relax for the rest of the day. Then I can capture candid moments as they happen later on.

Sarah: Do you have any tips for helping relatives who are not comfortable in front of the camera?

Tamsen: When I arrive, I always go around introducing myself and talking with everyone so they know a little about me and aren’t as uncomfortable when the photos start. Then I pose them in a way that feels comfortable and relaxed to them and as I’m photographing, I keep talking, making everyone laugh and just kinda acting like a dork to get those “real” natural smiles out of the group.

Sarah: What are different ways to “stage” a group photo? Most of us seem to gravitate to the “taller in back, shorter in front” guideline. Are there other ways to think about it?

Tamsen: Well, that’s a standard pose but there’s always the opportunity to use natural items as well to mix up the portraits. I prefer to keep it more real and relaxed, so using architectural or natural elements in the location helps to break up the standard pose and create a more interesting photograph. Kneeling, sitting, leaning, using rocks at a beach, logs in a forest, incorporating a stool if needed – this helps to break up the portrait.

I also try to keep in mind the “triangle rule” – posing groups/families so that their heads form a triangular pattern is a pleasing look in a photograph as well. This trick is not new – in fact, if you look at paintings from long ago, you will notice that large groups are painted in the same way.

Sarah: What are interesting ways to think about perspective? What would you recommend about taken shots from above or from below? How do you make perspective work in your favor to get a unique group photograph?

Tamsen: One thing I will never do is photograph people from below. It’s not a flattering angle and I don’t think anyone wants to see up their nostrils. I prefer to shoot on a stepladder for family sessions. Shooting from above a little helps create a more flattering angle and also enables me to see everyone, including those who may be in the back (I’m a short 5’4” so the stepladder is essential to me!).

I don’t shoot from very high above (i.e. from a balcony) because the subjects are usually craning their heads upward, getting sun in their eyes, etc. I can see this possibly being necessary with a huge group (over 50+) but with smaller reunions it is nicer to be able to see everyone’s face clearly.

Sarah: How about “dressing people” for a group photo? As you organize people in the group should the color of their clothing match, or be as diverse as possible? What do you think of the “team t-shirt” approach for a group photo?

Tamsen: Coordinating clothing is very important to the final image. I prefer families to look like themselves, dressed in their own clothing, and not in a standard uniform of white shirts and khaki pants. I encourage them to simply talk to one another about their family color choices and ensure that everything will complement color wise. This often means that they will choose a color palette (i.e. blues, greys, purples) and everyone can wear colors that will work nicely together without looking like they just all hit up a mall for a new shirt. Discussing this with family members is KEY to the final portrait, because if one person shows up in a bright red dress, they will clash horribly and stand out of the crowd.

I also suggest avoiding large logos across the front of shirts and hats, which can block out other family members or cause shadows on the individual’s face. I include on my blog a monthly “What to Wear” post which helps my clients to understand what I mean by “complement”. Often the very easiest way to find a complementary palette is to look at an item of clothing that incorporates a lot of color.

Sarah: How about props? The possibilities here are endless. Have you seen props effectively used in photographs at reunions? What are the things to think about (and avoid) when considering props?

Tamsen: Other than bringing stools or blankets to sit on, I don’t use a lot of props. I think some things might be cute (using large numbers or letters to spell out the family name or anniversary date) but I wouldn’t incorporate them into every image. I prefer a simple and clean image that leaves the attention on the subjects of the image rather than the cool props.

Sarah: What are your thoughts on background for a group photo? Many reunions take place at historical sites or family homes. Should people try to include something relevant in the background or does that distract from the people in the photograph?

Tamsen: I love the idea of including a family home, or cottage into the background of the portrait and it gives so much more meaning as well. When I photograph, I would situate the group a distance away from the building so that the whole thing would show in the background but it would be out of focus, leaving the family members the main subject in the image. 

Sarah: We all know light is critical to good photography but what does that mean in terms of taking a good group shot? Do we want the lighting directly overhead or coming from the side? What should we be looking for in this regard?

Tamsen: Overhead light is the least flattering to any portrait. It creates harsh shadows under eyes (often called raccoon eyes) and bright spots everywhere else. It is possible to shoot in this type of light if there is a large area of open shade, but I always prefer to do posed portraits in more even lighting. As I mentioned before, the most beautiful time of day for light is early morning or late evening.

I shoot with the light coming from behind, which creates a beautiful halo of light around the subjects and keeps them from squinting in the sunlight.

Sarah: What else can you share with us about taking fun and high quality group photos?

Tamsen: Go into it with a positive attitude. I find men especially hate portraits which can create stress within the whole group. 

If everyone goes into the session with a fun and positive attitude, the session ALWAYS goes smoother. It really only takes a maximum of one hour for posed portraits if everyone behaves well, so the sooner people behave the sooner we are done! I just keep reminding them of the delicious food and drink and all the fun ahead of them!

Thank you, Tamsen, for providing these helpful suggestions to our readers. If you would like to see more of Tamsen’s work or find out how you can hire her for your next family reunion, visit her website at


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Memorial Day traditions

Memorial Day traditions

Memorial Day is a day of remembrance, an opportunity to pause and appreciate the sacrifices of those that gave their lives in the service of our country. This holiday, originally called Decoration Day, was created after the Civil War to honor fallen Union soldiers. Today tiny flags and flowers will adorn cemeteries across the nation to commemorate all Americans that perished while serving in the Armed Forces.


Memorial Day is an important event in my family – a day when everyone gathers together to clean, care for and decorate the graves of our ancestors. All of our relatives’ headstones receive bouquets not just the veterans’, but the largest most beautiful bouquet always graces the grave of my maternal grandfather, a veteran of the Korean War. My grandmother saves coffee cans all year-long and we cover them in aluminum foil to make simple, practical and most importantly, unbreakable vessels for the bouquets. After adding some rocks to weigh them down, we fill them with water and a simple but festive arrangement of rhododendrons, irises, snow balls, lilacs or any other flower that is blooming in late May. Having one day a year set aside for this loving task makes it easy to gather plenty of helping hands.

If you would like to add this tradition to your Memorial Day activities, The Association of Gravestone Studies gives detailed instruction for how to care for and preserve monuments based on their material (granite, marble, limestone or sandstone). When I was growing up we used regular household cleaners and scrub brushes on headstones but we now take a much more gentle approach and use only water and plastic bristle brushes to do the job. The handiest tool I’ve found to date is an old toothbrush! Annual cleaning and care will keep lichen from taking a foothold and help to preserve headstones for centuries to come.

If you need help locating the headstones of your ancestors there are two extremely helpful resources that may guide you to the right location. A popular site among genealogists is, a massive database of headstone transcriptions that contains over 80 million burial listings. Many of the listed graves have been photographed and some come with links to other relatives buried nearby.

Another resource is This service allows a volunteer to snap a photo of a headstone with their smartphone and upload it directly to their website. The exact GPS location of the grave is then saved from the photo file and the data on the photograph is transcribed and made available in a searchable index. If you are lucky enough to find your ancestor on this site, you will be able to view the photograph of their headstone (handy when you are trying to find it in the sea of graves at the cemetery) as well as the exact location coordinates.

If you are far from home this Memorial Day, consider stopping by a local cemetery and caring for a headstone that has been forgotten, or contributing to a site like or to help other families locate graves. Small generous acts like these can help make this Memorial Day special and maybe add a little psychic fulfillment to go along with the hotdogs and bargain hunting.


The Hatfields and McCoys are at it again

The Hatfields and McCoys are at it again

The famous Hatfields – 1897

The Hatfields and McCoys are feuding again, this time in a History Channel movie airing on May 31, 2012, starring Kevin Costner. The infamous Kentucky and West Virginia clans known for their bloody discord lasting from 1882 to 1888 have captured the imaginations of millions of Americans and have now been revived in what will no doubt be an appropriately violent rendition of their 1880s scuffle.

On August 15, 1946, 58 years after the famous fracas ended, Walt Disney released a charming animated film called Make Mine Music which contained ten short clips, including The Martins and the Coys, based on the Ted Weems and Al Cameron song of the same name. This short film portrayed two families (the Martins and Coys), engaged in a fatal gun fight that ends when each family has one survivor left. This gentle caricature, based on the Hatfields and McCoys, is what most people born between 1940 and today picture when they think of a feud.

For those of you that read yesterday’s post, Family Reunions – Part 1: Location, location, location, and worried that a reunion would stir up old family quarrels, you’ll be comforted to hear that the Hatfields and McCoys have made peace and for the past 13 years have held annual family reunions. According to a CBS News story, “Official End of Legendary Feud” by Rome Neal, on Saturday, June 14, 2003 the acrimony officially ended when representatives from both families signed a truce. I suspect that a Hatfield/McCoy family reunion has a fairly low bar for success – as long as no one dies, everyone leaves happy. For those of you with higher expectations, check back for my continuing series on how to pull off the perfect family reunion.

Funeral photography

Funeral photography

On April 21, 1865 Abraham Lincoln’s mortal remains were placed on a train to make the 1654 mile journey from Washington D.C. to Springfield, Illinois. His funeral procession lasted 14 days and his open casket was viewed by more than 1.5 million people.

Despite the astounding number of people that viewed Lincoln’s body, only one photograph is known to exist depicting his corpse. This photo was discovered in 1952 by Ronald Rietveld, then a 14 year old boy who was leafing through a collection of papers belonging to Lincoln’s secretary, held at the Illinois State Historical Library (click here to view the photo).

Currier and Ives sketch of Lincoln’s casket – Library of Congress


The photograph, taken by Jeremiah Gurney, Jr. shows the embalmed Lincoln lying in state in New York City on April 24, 1865. An excellent 2009 History Channel documentary, “Stealing Lincoln’s Body” details the discovery of the photograph as well as a counterfeiting ringleader’s attempt to snatch Lincoln’s body from its tomb in Springfield, Illinois.

Memorial portraiture, or “memento mori”, the practice of capturing the image of the deceased, was once accepted custom. During the 19th and early 20th century, funeral photos were commonly taken as the final memento of one’s life, often showing mourning family members surrounding the coffin.

As our attitudes towards death and dying have shifted, memorial portraiture is largely a thing of the past, sensationalistic acts not withstanding, such as the leaked photograph of Whitney Houston lying in her casket recently published by the National Enquirer. Whereas mortal remains were once lovingly cared for and preserved by family until time of burial, we now outsource this task to an entire industry of undertakers, and funeral homes.

The shift in attitudes towards memorial portraiture is a bit of a loss for the genealogist. Family photos are often a first step in identifying relatives. Major life events that bring families together generate the photos that become the critical clues and starting points for future family historians. After all, not everyone can make it to a confirmation, graduation or wedding of a loved one, but just about everyone makes it to the funeral.

Just as a memorial service can be thought of as a celebration of someone’s life, so can funeral photographs and albums be thought of as ways to capture and honor the memory of a loved one. While open casket photographs may not appeal to everyone, a photograph of funeral attendees gathered around the burial site or a guest book where attendees can sign their name and write a favorite memory of the deceased will be meaningful keepsakes for future generations of family historians.

Shown here are funeral photographs in my family’s collection.