What’s a photo without the story?

UPDATE #1: Mystery solved! (scroll down)

UPDATE #2: I was so taken by my grandmother’s “bathing beauty” photograph that I used it on the cover of my 2021 book — What’s a Photo Without the Story? How to Create Your Family Legacy (click to learn more). The book is not about my family, per se, but I do use my own photos and stories as examples of what you can do, too. This is the longest story in the book. Most are one image plus a paragraph or two.

Who is this saucy young woman? Don’t know? Don’t care?

She looks like fun, though, doesn’t she?

What if you found this photo in a bin at Goodwill? For sale on eBay?

Would you buy it? Would you feel vaguely sad that somebody got rid of it, and move on?

What if you found her in your parents’ stuff and didn’t know who she was?

Would you keep, or toss? Would you try to find the story behind the photo?

Every photo has a story. If we don't know what it is, maybe we can find out! Click To Tweet

My paternal grandparents Archie Raymond THORNTON & Hazel Islery CLAY on their wedding day in 1925.

Allow me to introduce you to Hazel Islery Clay Thornton, my paternal grandmother and namesake. Sadly, she died when my dad was 16. Thus, also sadly, I never got the chance to know her. But I did feel, in a way, like I met her when I saw this photo for the first time. I’d seen photos of her older self, but none of her younger self until recently. There’s more to her story than I will probably ever know, and just looking at the photo begs questions — What beach is this? How old was she? Who took the photo? — but I’m happy for the chance to know this much: She was kind. She was happy. She was fun-loving. My dad adored her.

And what are names and dates without photos?

Here are the basics, and screenshots of a couple of census records:

Hazel Islery Clay Thornton: b. 16 Jun 1906, Richmond, VA, d. 10 Jul 1950, Los Angeles, CA

Here is Hazel, age 3, living with her parents and little brother, in Richmond, VA in 1910:

To me, this census record is almost as good as a photo, but I can understand if it’s not quite as meaningful to you.

Here she is living with her husband and two children (including my dad, age 6) in Los Angeles in 1940.

These facts are so much more interesting with a photo or two to go with them, don’t you think?

Interest in genealogy is increasing

You may have heard, probably from me, that genealogy is the second most popular hobby in America, after gardening. But did you know that it’s also the second most Googled topic on the internet, after pornography?!?! I have to imagine this includes keyword searches such as “Ancestry”, “Family Tree”, “Heritage”, and “Org4life Family History Research Services”, just as searchers are presumably rather specific when Googling up their porn. (Don’t worry, we won’t dwell on that. And it’s probably not even true, as per this humor-less article about a harmless claim.)

Such are the tidbits I pick up at conferences, the most recent one being the 10th anniversary celebration (and 7th annual conference) of the Association of Professional Photo Organizers (APPO), now The Photo Managers. Happy anniversary and congratulations to founder Cathi Nelson!

I was lucky enough this year (2019) that conference was held in Bernalillo, New Mexico, at the gorgeous Tamaya resort, just 20 miles north of my house. In addition to meeting up with organizing colleagues, and learning about new photo organizing techniques and resources, it gave me a chance to reflect on what photos have to do with my primary interest: genealogy.

Most photo organizers do not also do genealogy research. But many of them help genealogists organize their photos. So, it delighted me to see a session offered this year called “Adding Genealogy as a Service”, presented by Caroline Guntur, The Swedish Organizer. Several colleagues asked why I was attending this session, if I already offer genealogy research services to clients. Indeed, only a handful of us raised our hands when asked who the genealogists were in the room. Well, it’s because I only know a handful of other genealogy organizers, and I wanted to hear what Caroline had to say! And the first thing she said was, “What’s a photo without the story?”

“What’s a photo without the story?” – Caroline Guntur, The Swedish Organizer Click To Tweet

I didn’t learn much in terms of methods and resources that I didn’t already know about, but still, the session inspired me. Listening to Caroline reminded me how much more I have to do in terms of sharing my family research with my family. Not to mention the contents of Mom’s Boxes! And made me realize I would like to add more client photos (photos they give me, and photos I find online to surprise them with) to the genealogy stories I tell with words and dates. It’s one thing to add local and global historical facts to give perspective to an ancestor’s story, and to glean their occupation and other details about their way of life from the documents I find. But photos really bring the story to life, don’t you think?

Who are these people, anyway?

So many people throw photos away because they don’t know the people in them. And the organizer in me agrees: Toss! I even offer a Photo Clutter Flow Chart to help you figure out which photos are clutter and what to do with them. But the genealogist in me says – Hold on a minute! When was this photo taken? Whose house is this? Maybe we can figure out who these people are with just a bit of research.

Family photos and stories help children grow up feeling more secure and feeling like they know where they fit into this big world. Sharing photos and family stories make us all feel connected. As humans, we all have so much more in common than we have differences.

I told Caroline I was going to write a blog post about what genealogy has to do with photo organizing. She replied, “Like everything?” Exactly!

UPDATE: Mystery solved!

Last year (when I originally wrote this post) I tried to identify the hotel in the background of the photo. I Googled images of beachside hotels in Southern California and worldwide, past and present. Nothing. I posted it on Facebook and asked my Southern California friends if they recognized it. A couple of them said, “Yes! It looks like the Hotel Del Mar in Santa Monica.”

But I had my doubts. The building design was, indeed quite similar. I probably could have gotten away with claiming it was the Hotel Del Mar. But there were too many differences — more than remodelings during intervening years would account for. (I’ll spare you the structural details here in this post.) I even contacted the hotel itself, and the Santa Monica historical society, with mixed results.

This week I decided to resume my search by consulting with Maureen Taylor, The Photo Detective. It seemed as good a way as any to meet her before including her as a resource in my forthcoming book:

What’s a Photo Without the Story? A guide to leaving your family legacy.

We both could tell without looking it up (and you, too, probably) that the swimsuit and hairstyle, with headband, indicated that the photo was taken in the 1920’s. (Plus, I knew it was my grandma, and when she lived.) Maureen agreed that the hotel was not the Casa Del Mar and she showed me another (non-beach) photo of a similar building to demonstrate that it was not a unique style during that time period. She asked where, exactly, my grandparents had lived in Los Angeles (I got addresses from census records, both before and after their 1925 marriage) and I consulted a map to determine which beaches they were most likely to have visited. Santa Monica and Long Beach were the straightest shots (with several beaches in between).

Not having any reason to think they were world travelers, I searched “beach hotels near Los Angeles 1925”. Nada. Maureen asked if there were any other photos from that same day. There weren’t, but I did find a photo of my grandpa with my aunt as a child (so, still in the 20’s) with a sign in the background that said, very clearly, “Silver Spray Pleasure Pier”. Which at that time, according to Google, was located in Long Beach. I also remember my dad saying he had enjoyed visiting Long Beach as a child, but he did not recognize the hotel. He wrote: “Mom used to take me to Long Beach by bus, with my little sand bucket and tiny shovel…just her and me…When a little older, going to The Pike was a real treat.”

I changed my search slightly, to: “beach hotels near Los Angeles 1920’s”…..and there it was! The Hotel Virginia in Long Beach!

Hotel Virginia, Long Beach, CA.

From this article, The opulent rise and dismal fall of the Hotel Virginia in Long Beach, referring to the Great Depression:

“The Virginia, with no hope of a national economic recovery in sight, closed its doors in October 1932 and just weeks before it would’ve likely fallen to the Long Beach quake of ‘33. It was razed and the rubble was carried away from the town.”

Well,  no wonder my dad didn’t recognize the hotel. He was born that same year — 1933!

Meanwhile, I’ve never been a special fan of colorized photos. But Maureen has convinced me that sometimes important details become more visible once an old photo is sharpened and colorized. There were no significant clues revealed in this particular photo, but I must admit that the enhancements highlight my grandma against the backdrop of the hotel in a way that the original does not.

Which one do YOU prefer?


As for who took the photo, I’m going with my grandpa, based on the timeframe, the flirty look, and the fact that the photo was in my dad’s possession. Maybe they spent their honeymoon at the Hotel Virginia?

Do you have unidentified people or buildings in your photos?

Want some help figuring out who they might be?

Do you have a story to share about your own such photos?

Please join the conversation in the comments below!

Copyright 2019-2020 by Hazel Thornton, Organized for Life.
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  1. Seana Turner on April 8, 2019 at 10:54 am

    I agree that interest in genealogy is growing. I just ran into someone recently who is building a business in this… she is a friend, and I had no idea. I’m glad that people who have the passion and skill can bring family photos to life. Nice to know there are options!

  2. Nancy Haworth on April 8, 2019 at 3:25 pm

    This is a very interesting article. You are right, without the stories behind them, many photos are a mystery. I was lucky enough to have a distant cousin who wrote stories to go along with some family photos when he was doing genealogy research. It was really nice to learn more about the people such as where they lived, how old they were, their occupation, how married couples met, etc. These photos and stories told so much more than just a name and death and birth date could on a family tree.

    • Hazel Thornton on August 3, 2020 at 8:25 am

      The stories make the photos come alive — and vice versa!

  3. Janet Schiesl on April 9, 2019 at 6:00 am

    Great information! A big project but so worth it. I have a wall of old family photos (copies of originals) in my dining room. I put names of people and relationship to our family on the back, because my kids won’t know who these people are and then they lose their importance. Also on the wall is a family tree, so they can relate the photos to the tree.
    Great advice in this post.

    • Hazel Thornton on August 3, 2020 at 8:23 am

      I’m so glad to hear that you’ve labeled the photos! And I love that you’ve got a family tree right there next to them on the wall!

  4. Judy Wallace on April 10, 2019 at 10:22 pm

    You are so right! I’m doing genealogy on my family, I have loads/tons of photos we’ve taken over the years (digital and print) AND I do digital scrapbooking. My photos are the bedrock of everything I love. This article was fascinating. Thanks!

    • Hazel Thornton on August 3, 2020 at 8:22 am

      Thanks for your comment, Judy!

  5. Andi Willis on April 13, 2019 at 5:04 am

    I agree, the story is so important and really makes the photo sing. I had a similar photo of my grandmother and although I didn’t find out the meaning of the picture from her (she passed almost 12 years ago), I figured out some major clues. https://goodlifephotosolutions.com/stories-photos-tell-hells-angels/

    And I love how genealogy is turning up in our work. Family history and family photos are unquestionably intertwined.

    • Hazel Thornton on August 3, 2020 at 8:22 am

      I remember that story about your grandmother! And you are so right — family history and family photos are inseparable!

  6. Janet Barclay on April 23, 2019 at 10:25 am

    You have sparked my interest in genealogy and especially looking at old family photos! Your work must be very satisfying.

    • Hazel Thornton on August 3, 2020 at 8:20 am

      I used to think it would be boring to work on someone else’s genealogy. But I’ve found that if I’M the one doing the research I care very much about their family and get as excited about the discoveries I make on their behalf as I do my own!

  7. Marti on May 12, 2019 at 5:21 am

    My two passions, genealogy and photos!
    Working identifying people in the boxes of photos we inherited from my mother-in-law and mother when they passed away. No one else wanted them!?!?!
    Since both my husband and I are actively research our families, it actually helps us to identify who people are and where the photos may have been taken.
    We share all of our findings in family facebook groups. Photos actually get more family members to comment and share their stories with each other in the groups. Wonderful to see.

    • Hazel Thornton on May 18, 2019 at 2:57 pm

      Thanks for your comment. I love hearing about the different ways families share their photos and family history with each other.

  8. Seana Turner on July 20, 2020 at 6:40 am

    That is so cool that figured out the mystery. Perseverance pays off!! I think I like the colorized version better because the details are just clearer. But I still like the vintage feel of the other one. I don’t know – the whole thing is just so fun to read:)

    • Hazel Thornton on August 3, 2020 at 8:12 am

      Thanks, Seana! I know what you mean about being torn between the two photos. But now I know that colorizing and sharpening are valuable tools for photo detectives!

  9. Diane N. Quintana on July 20, 2020 at 7:30 am

    Oh, Hazel, I just love this story! I have a bundle of photographs which my mother found in her mother’s attic which belonged to her mother (my great-grandmother). You’ve inspired me to take another look through them. Maybe I’ll solve a couple of mysteries related to people in the pictures. I know where and approximately when they were taken.

    • Hazel Thornton on August 3, 2020 at 8:16 am

      Yay! I’d love to know what another look at your photos might reveal.

  10. Julie Bestry on July 20, 2020 at 9:23 am

    This is just such a fabulous story, Hazel. You make the photograph sing and come alive with the story behind it! I feel like I’m right there on that beach with her.

    • Hazel Thornton on August 3, 2020 at 8:14 am

      Thanks, Julie! My grandmother died long before I was born. So, I never knew her, and also never felt I knew her through the few photos I’d seen, either…..until I saw the beach and wedding photos!

  11. Janet Barclay on July 20, 2020 at 9:51 am

    Thank you so much for sharing this story – especially the update! The specifics may not interest most of us, but they show us what’s possible if we really want to learn something.

    • Hazel Thornton on August 3, 2020 at 8:10 am

      And that is precisely why I’m writing stories like this!

  12. Melanie on July 20, 2020 at 11:08 am

    Fascinating!!!! This just proves what’s possible with a little determination and consistency. What a great lesson.

    • Hazel Thornton on August 3, 2020 at 8:20 am

      I’m glad you think so! 🙂

  13. Janice Norris on August 2, 2020 at 7:54 pm

    Thank you, Hazel! That was really interesting. I’m glad I took the time to read this post.

    Do you have a post with baby steps toward picture organization? I have so many photographs! It feels really overwhelming.

    • Hazel Thornton on August 3, 2020 at 7:56 am

      Hi Janice — I do! Save Your Photos! contains a downloadable pdf guide.

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What’s a Photo Without the Story? How to Create Your Family Legacy

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Go With the Flow! (The Clutter Flow Chart Workbook)

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