As the Photo Detective and as a family history expert, I spend my days looking at photographs and studying the pictorial evidence present in them. It's all about piecing together the story of a picture by asking a series of questions about when, where and why it was taken and then, hopefully, solving the mystery of who's depicted. The next step is setting it within a historical context–national, local and familial. The clues are varied and often obscure. Details such as clothing, photographer work dates, props, photographic method and family history all contribute to the final conclusions. In 2007, The Wall Street Journal called me "the nation's foremost historical photo detective." I credit the faculty at RIC with providing constructive direction to my passionate pursuit of the past.
Asked on the Rhode Island College undergraduate application about field of study, I checked history. While most of my classmates in the program were studying to be teachers, I wanted to work in a museum with historical artifacts. They were real bits of history–held by living individuals and were part of someone's everyday life. After college I pursued my dream by working in a historical society library helping patrons research their family history and discovered that historical photographs held my interest.
After graduation I tinkered with graduate school by taking classes at various institutions, but when I got serious about it, a degree program at RIC was the obvious choice. No programs looked as attractive. RIC had great teachers, challenging coursework and an atmosphere of self-directed learning. Once you'd fulfilled your classroom requirements, it was possible to pursue an independent project guided by a mentor/advisor in the field. My thesis was about women and marital relationships during the American Revolution.
Ten years ago I began a project that merged my interest in early photography and the history of the American Revolution. I set out to discover photographic portraits of the men and women (and some significant children) that comprised the generation that experienced the war first hand. In 2010, The Last Muster: Images of the Revolutionary War Generation (Kent State University, 2010) became a reality.
Now, as an internationally known photo historian, writer and lecturer on photo history, history and genealogy, I reflect on my days at Rhode Island College. The teachers and curriculum at Rhode Island College taught me how to critically study the past, but also gave me the skills I needed to succeed. I'm the author of several books on photography and family history including Picturing Rhode Island: Images of Everyday Life, 1850-2006 (Commonwealth Editions, 2007) and Fashionable Folks: Hairstyles, 1840-1900 (Picture Perfect Press, 2009).
Guess what? I teach. Not in the traditional classroom sense, but in lecture halls and online venues through writing and by mentoring students.