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
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
Program 1 A Closer Look (video)
This introduction to the course models the process of analyzing photographs with teachers and students. Photography historian Makeda Best discusses the Focus In method with teachers, and educator Julie Keefe employs the method with students at a photography exhibit on "light and dark." Photography curator at the Portland Art Museum, Julia Dolan discusses how she carefully selects a set of photographs to tell a larger story.
Program 2 Witness (video)
Photographs bear witness to world events and help us to learn more about people, places, and situations -- historical and present day. Middle school teacher Donald Rose guides students in analyzing photos from school integration movements of the 1960s. Documentary film producer Ken Burns weaves photographs into historical narratives to bring the past to life. Photojournalist Louie Palu's photos take us deep into mines and war zones, and engage us with the individuals who take on those tasks.
Program 3 Lives (video)
Lives explores the story of human resilience and perseverance. Middle school teacher Donald Rose uses the Migrant Mother photos by Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange to help students understand what elements a photographer chooses to focus on to create the greatest impact. Historian Linda Gordon, biographer of FSA photographer Dorothea Lange reveals Lange's role in engaging Americans in the plight of those who were most devastated. New Orleans documentary photographers Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick talk about the transformation of their photographs after Hurricane Katrina and working with young photographers to preserve the city's cultural heritage.
video 4 Evidence (video)
An image can show us otherwise invisible processes, previously undiscovered life forms, and dramatic change over time. High school teacher Rima Givot engages her students with highly magnified photos of mouse muscle to study genetically modified organisms. Scientist and photomicrographer Dennis Kunkel demonstrates the fascinating process of creating photographs of the microscopic world. Environmental photographer Gary Braasch reports on his worldwide travels to document the state of the planet through repeat photography.
Program 5 Story (video)
Every photograph tells a story: of struggle, of beauty, of community and culture. Social studies teacher Kim Kanof uses photos from the Protests and Politics collection to teach about protests around in the world in 1968. National Geographic photo editor Pamela Chen details the collaborative process of creating photo-based feature stories with design director David Whitmore. Iowa photographer Danny Wilcox Frazier discusses his work documenting the residents and images of marginalized communities across the United States.