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Essential Lens: Analyzing Photographs Across the Curriculum

Focus in on this Photo: 1904 World’s Fair

#9044 The immediate focus of the photograph is five men in indigenous dress sitting in a circle on the ground in front of a stone wall. In the background are thatched structures. More men in traditional dress sit on the stone wall. A group of men and women in Western clothing look on at the scene from the back of the photograph.


Date: 1904
Location: St. Louis, Missouri
Photographer: Jessie Tarbox Beals
Source: Missouri History Museum, St. Louis


Igorrote Song. Philippine Reservation in the Department of Anthropology. 1904 World’s Fair.


A group of people sits in the foreground; others sit in the middle ground. In the background are trees and some kind of shelter or shelters.



The immediate focus of the photograph is the group of indigenous men sitting in a circle in the foreground. They wear what appear to be traditional clothing, and are engaged with each other and in an unseen activity within the circle. The men sit on wooden disks. There are vessels and what might be tools around them.


In the center-middle ground area, there is a rock wall, and another group of males sit atop it. They appear to look out at the photographer. On the far left of the composition is a thatched structure, and two individuals can be seen sitting inside of it. Just the bottom corner of a placard affixed to the tree on the right is visible.


In the background of the composition, five people in Western clothing appear to be watching from behind another rock wall. Two blurry figures move by on the left. In the very background is a large thatched structure.



The setting of the photograph is outdoors. Various incongruous elements suggest the environment is contrived. There is a rock wall and the thatched structures suggest different cultural traditions. There are thatched structures, which suggest one type of ecological habitat, and pine trees, which suggest another.

Build on Your Observations

The vantage point of the photographer depicts the scene from the point of view of the people in the foreground. Meanwhile, the gaze of the young men on the wall introduces tension in the image, as they acknowledge the photographer’s (and our) gaze. They look back at us as we look at them.


The framing of the image allows the viewer to see the thatched structure on the left, and to gain a sense of how this setting is organized.



The viewer’s understanding of the setting is also enhanced by the photographer’s elevated position, which allows the viewer to see the series of rock walls. Because of the presence of the blurred figure, there is probably a path in the background area.


The photographer calls attention to the depth in the image by portraying people in the front, middle, and background areas, who each are engaged in different activities and adopt different reactions to the main scene in the foreground.

Make Inferences

The caption indicates this is a scene at a World’s Fair. Begun in the mid-nineteenth century, World’s Fairs or Expositions, or Universal Expositions, were large public exhibitions held in different host countries. Fairs focused on showcasing developments in technology and industrialization and cultural traditions, and on promoting national identities. “Educational” pavilions sought to distinguish cultures and nations, sometimes through the literal display of indigenous people who would live on the fair grounds for the duration of the exhibition. Visitors would view their “performance,” or their “everyday” activities.

The photograph presents the kind of scene these fairs sought to teach: cultural identities. The figures in the Western clothing are a contrast to the figures in indigenous attire. Cultural identities and differences are further implied by the absence of Western objects in the “living area” of the indigenous people. For example, they do not sit in chairs: they sit on the ground on wooden disks.

Formulate Further Questions

How were World’s Fairs designed?

What were the responses to the World’s Fairs?

Did the people being observed observe others during the fair?

Who were the photographers that made these images? Were they local photographers or did they also come from another country?

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