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Essential Lens: Analyzing Photographs Across the Curriculum

Series Resources Focus In Activity

“A camera is a tool for learning how to see…” ~ Dorothea Lange

“It isn’t what a picture is of, it is what it is about.” ~ John Szarkowski

Source: Bequest of Fae Heath Batten/Portland Art Museum

We all, including our students, are bombarded with photographic imagery, but in contemporary viewing situations, we rarely get the full context associated with them. We might understand how they were taken (formally or informally), where they were disseminated (shared), and who may have viewed them, but our connection with photographs is often by way of reaction, rather than looking more closely at its attributes and communicative qualities. (Read more About Essential Lens.)

A photograph can function as a great starting point for rich inquiry and analysis, and, thus, deeper understanding of a time, a people and a culture, a place, or an event.

Made from life, photographs convey a lot of information. Some of this information has meaning at the moment in which the photograph was made, and sometimes the significance of details or actions are more deeply understood from a distance (historical or spatial). Furthermore, each person will interpret what a photograph portrays differently.

When analyzing a photograph, how do you begin, or where do you start? What do you look for, and how do you organize your inquiry — or critical thinking — into a productive exercise? The goal of the following steps is to provide a framework for analyzing a photograph. This framework can be used with photographs from a range of subject matter and disciplines.

Focus In introduces these steps by demonstrating how to apply the aesthetic vocabulary associated with a photograph. We have applied and modeled this method with one photograph from each of the collections. Consult the glossary to familiarize yourself with some of the terms used when describing what one might see in a photograph. You may also want to watch A Closer Look to view these steps in action with teachers.

Focus In Method for Analyzing Photographs

Step 1: Observe 
Step 2: Build on Your Observations
Step 3: Make Inferences
Step 4: Formulate Further Questions

Refer to the glossary and start by examining, at the basic level, the visual building blocks of the photograph. What is the subject matter of the photograph? What kinds of details — objects, expressions, etc. — do you see? How is the photograph organized (that is, how do you describe its composition)? How is your attention distributed throughout the photograph: from its foreground to background? What do you notice about aspects such as shadows and textures? Try to be as detailed in your observations as possible. Then follow these steps to look closely at the photograph to reveal additional information that will build on your own teaching strategies and your students’ understanding of the topic you are teaching.

Step 1: Observe

Look carefully at the photograph’s subject matter and details. Note, for example, the people in it, how people interact with each other or with their surroundings, the setting, structures, and objects. If the photograph appears more abstract, consider how objects relate to one another in terms of scale or texture. If you haven’t already, read the title (if there is one), caption, and the date of the photograph. What information does this provide? Make note of details, but try not to make a judgment just yet about what you are looking at; this way, the work remains open to many different intentions, meanings, and functions.

Step 2: Build on Your Observations

Build on your initial list of observations by identifying formal attributes of the image to understand the construction of the photograph and the visual organization of the subject matter and details. What is the vantage point or point of view of the image? What is the most dominant aspect of the image? How is the space organized (does all of the action take place in the foreground, or is action distributed throughout)? What do you notice in the foreground versus the background?

Step 3: Make Inferences

Suggest a narrative or interpretation of what you see by applying knowledge gained from your observations, the title and any caption information, and from other sources. Pay attention to details provided in the title and the caption. Facts such as location can provide important clues. Consider specific details — such as text, place, or subjects — in relation to your observations to inform your interpretation. Not all captions and titles are created by the photograph’s maker; consider the author or the point of view of the caption.

Step 4: Formulate Further Questions

After noting initial observations, what about the image do you want to know more about? Questions can address both what is in the photograph and/or relate to issues beyond the image’s representational borders. For example, does the image prompt questions about specific aspects of its subject matter and their context? Does the image prompt questions about the photograph’s original use, function, and reception?

Series Directory

Essential Lens: Analyzing Photographs Across the Curriculum


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. © 2015
  • Closed Captioning
  • ISBN: 1-57680-905-6