Without knowing the size and condition of the collection, my answer is based on work I did with the several photograph collections I inherited. I am not a professional archivist (others are welcome to edit my answer to improve the terminology).
Preserve - Catalog - Learn, but first ASK!!!
Inquire not just of your parents but of any one related to the family about the images. Heck, anyone in the town where you believe the photos were taken. Often times, more than one original was created--just maybe someone else has the same image that has names, dates and places notated.
- During your work in process, keep the photographs grouped in the way that you found them.
- Use appropriate archival materials in order to preserve the photographs. In almost all cases, I used archival sleeves and most of the photographs I had fit into standard-sized sleeves. In turn, I put the sleeves in three ring binders. Climate and other conditions vary by locale. You may want to learn more from a local museum or archivist group about the preservation techniques recommended for your area.
- Give each collection (group/subgroup) a name.
- Digitize the photographs (without losing track of their group/order). I did my own work and used a scanner. You may want to consult a professional to learn the best approach to digitizing your images. In most cases, I scanned the front and back of each photograph. If the photograph was enclosed in a frame, but easily removed--I scanned it with and without the frame. If the image didn't easily remove from the frame, I didn't try to force it. I gave each scan an identifying number, which was also recorded on the face of the sleeve into which the original was stored. I used a pretty simple code for the collection name and item number; this was appended with the file format (I generally used TIFF) and the resolution (mine varied from 300 to 1200, depending on the size of the original).
Catalog the collection first and then each of the images in the collection. At the collection level, for me this was a process of documenting the provenance of each collection.
In your case--who owns the collection; how did it come into their possession and what do they know of the prior owners. Record who knows what and how they know it. This includes answering how "we" know these were photographs of Blenkinsopp-Leaton family members? How do "we" know they were wealthy? From Northern England? How is each photograph "obviously" of the same family?
Catalog each item in the collection:
- Record whether or not there is a visible mark (front/back/both) for the photographer and/or studio. a photographer. If there is no studio or photographer mark, you'll enter "Unidentified photographer" as the creator. (The creator information is important as it may lead to business records and/or otherwise aid in dating the images later--see "learn.")
- Make note of the type of image. There are many fine books and web sites about old photograph types. Lorine McGinnis Schulze (the Olive Tree Lady) has a great site, "Types of Early Photographs]1."
- Make a record of the original image size.
- Include a brief description of the image--young boy; woman's portrait, etc. Assuming these are all unidentified, this brief description will as a sort of title for the image, so "Unidentified young boy"; "Unidentified portrait of woman."
- Include the scanned file name(s)
- Record any annotations--handwriting on the front or back. Record the names of those who had written on the photographs if you can identify the handwriting. When you can't, those notations are by an "unknown hand."
Include your name and date the cataloging work you do. Store a copy of same with the originals and with the digitized copies. If you are like me, you'll update the cataloging as you learn more.
Now you can work with a set of the digital images and your cataloged information to date and learn more about the images.
- Track down information about each photographer/studio--when (and
where) were they in business? Do business records exist?
- Identify building in the photographs--can the facades be dated or
placed? Is there family decor in the images?
- If this was a wealthy family, might there have been other archives or
creations about them that include identifying information.
There are many great books that provide guidance about dating photographs. I have a couple including Dating old photographs, 1840-1929, (2000; reprint, Toronto, Ont./Niagara Falls, N.Y. : Family Chronicle, bef 2004). Click on that title to visit the website for this publication. You'll find many helpful materials and examples have been posted to the site.
I recommend almost anything by Maureen Taylor, whom the Wall Street Journal referred to as the US' "foremost historical photo detective."