LIFE WRITING No. 1: Photos need a story

Covid isolation has inspired many people to write their family history or memoir. This is the first of a series on life writing.

Some days the pen flows. Other times, you hit a brick wall and wonder why. There are ways of vaulting over that wall, or just taking a different direction. Don’t be a slave to chronology. Don’t fret over the gaps in the family tree–you don’t have to write in a straight line. Like a patchwork quilt, you can write pieces of memoir, then stitch it all up later.

What could be more frustrating than a picture of someone, possibly a family member, with no name, date or place to give it a lasting meaning?

Photographs need a story, or at least a caption.

Will McNicoll, photographer, of
Stevenson & McNicoll, Melbourne, remembered as an exasperating tease

Here’s my great-grandfather Will, professional photographer, posing in front of some moulded frames. He has dark eyes, a striking beard and a sprig of jonquils on his lapel. His eyes demand attention. What kind of man was he?

Thanks to our family historian, my late Uncle Ron, I have a very good idea. Ron began with the standard dates and places of birth and death, and any recorded occupation. He then turned to newspaper clippings, letters, photographs and interviews to provide a fuller picture. Sometimes he added a rumour or family legend. Will struck some of his in-laws as full of conceit. One described him as “just a strutter”.

Ellen McNicoll, photographic technician, mother of three and Temperance campaigner

Ellen Ramsay, a keen member of a temperance (anti-drinking) league called the Good Templars, was a teacher when she married Will. They were both 24. Several years later, with two small children, she joined Will on tours in western Victoria with their horse-drawn photographic van. For some days the van would be a mobile studio, where townspeople posed against velvet drapes. Then Will would be off to drum up business in the next town, while Ellen developed photos in the van, now serving as a darkroom and dense with chemical fumes. Ellen suffered from headaches, rashes and eye problems.

In late 1883 Ellen wrote a long diary, describing the grubby inns where the family stayed and the local schools that welcomed the children. She, Walter and Amy spent a rare day of leisure hiking in Werribee Gorge, where they collected ferns. She admired many trees, including wattles “covered with their sweet yellow blossom, from which delicious perfume was wafted across to us occasionally.”

Back in Melbourne, Ellen advanced to the rank of Grand Vice-Templar, and had a third child. She was often the butt of Will’s teasing. Her niece Mary Corteen remembered that “she would get very angry and go off somewhere.” Will is also remembered as a flirt who once made an “improper proposal” to a woman who decided not to upset Ellen by telling her about it.

Ellen died of a heart attack at the age of 48, while Will remarried and lived to a grand old age. My cousin Deborah (another family historian) and I both believe that exposure to chemicals shortened our great-grandmother’s life.

There are no black-haired, dark-eyed descendants, so it seems that Ellen’s genes dominated. As for temperament, it is fascinating to ponder to what extent personality is hereditary, and whether I take after the strutter or the temperance campaigner–or both?

And let’s salute Ron McNicoll, family historian, who researched and wrote in the 1970s, long before the internet or His sources included photographs, family documents, letters, newspaper files, government records and interviews, and he was not afraid to include unflattering details.


  • Place
  • Memoir/autobiography/family history
  • Mythology and identification
  • Shh!! family secrets
  • Letters, diaries and other documents


One thought on “LIFE WRITING No. 1: Photos need a story

  1. Yes. An anecdotal approach which tells something of the ancestor as a person is far preferable to a bare family tree.
    It helps also if the ancestor was a rogue or did something unusual.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s