RIC grad Maureen Taylor helps families picture history

Maureen Taylor (Photo: Erik Jacobs Photography)
Maureen Taylor ’78, sees the world through a wide-angle lens.

While in school, the Rhode Island College graduate found herself drawn to history, photography and genealogy. But while the majority of her peers earned degrees and went on to work in their own specified, niche fields, Taylor was fusing her experiences and interests into something more.

Maureen Taylor now operates at the center of the unlikely venn diagram her primary interests create. She is an internationally recognized expert on the intersection of those three passions: history, photography and genealogy. That is, Taylor uses her deep knowledge of American history to analyze family photographs, gleaning clues from them to help clients learn more about their ancestors.

Nowadays, she goes by the title, “The Photo Detective.”

“My first class as a freshman [at RIC] was Dr. Santoro’s history seminar,” Taylor remembers. “Our assignment was to research our family history.”

While she admits she was always fascinated by her choice of studies, Taylor was able to hone them in college.

She owned her first camera from the time she was a child, living in Bristol. Studying the old family snapshots she found in her mother’s closet ignited her passion for family photographs.

During her time at RIC, Taylor had a stroke of luck. “A librarian at RIC introduced me to the graphics curator at the Rhode Island Historical Society, and I was hired,” she said. She worked in both the reference and graphics departments during her time there.

Taylor is now a photo curator, public speaker and writer, but it’s her unique photo detective work that truly separates her from the crowd. She accepts submissions of family photographs from clients, be they from virtually any era. Daguerreotypes, ambrotypes and cartes des viste paper photographs are all subject to her analysis.

The curator’s work has been featured in many publications and broadcasts, including The Wall Street Journal, Hallmark Television, Better Homes & Gardens, The Boston Globe, MSNBC and more.

“I look at everything,” Taylor says of her photo dissection method. “I begin by interviewing the client about what they know about the image and who gave it to them. Then I look at all the pictorial evidence: photographer’s work dates, props, backgrounds, style of photo and of course, their clothing. It’s all about adding up the facts and comparing those details to family history or local history.”

This reproduction of a daguerreotype portrait of Dorothy Catherine Draper – believed to be the
first photographic portrait made in the U.S. – is, like our own family photos, full of clues that
Maureen Taylor uses to help clients learn about their ancestors.
Using this approach, Taylor is able to identify her client’s ancestors and help them better understand their family’s role in America’s history.

Taylor has even gone so far as to identify what she believes to be the first American family photo. A daguerreotype taken shortly after the process was first invented (in Paris, by Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre), the picture is of Dorothy Catherine Draper. Her brother, John W. Draper, operated the camera that took this very first snapshot of early American life.

The daguerreotype is one of the earliest known methods of photography. The fragile, smudge-prone images were formed by the a solution of mercury and silver on the surface of a copper plate.

When not operating as the Photo Detective, Taylor also works as a contributing editor at Family Tree Magazine. Her contributions to the field don’t end there, though.

Having authored and published three books – “Fashionable Folks: Hairstyles 1840-1900,” “The Last Muster: Images of the Revolutionary War Generation” and “Preserving Your Family Photographs” – and regularly hosting a variety of seminars on her expertise, it was inevitable that Taylor’s devotion to her work would lead herto her own family tree.

“I’ve learned a few fun things about my family,” she said. “On my mother’s side, my ancestors were amongst the first settlers in Quebec. On my father’s side of the family, there are a lot of dead ends, but it appears they were from Ireland.”

Ironically enough, photographed documentation of her family hits a dead end only slightly more than a century ago. “Unfortunately, I own very few photos of either side of the family taken before 1900,” Taylor said.

But though the chronology of her own family is halted, Taylor continues to help clients peer into their own history and develop an appreciation of where they – and we, as a nation – come from.

So long as it’s all in the frame.

For more on Maureen Taylor and her work, visit www.maureentaylor.com.