|National Archives and Records Administration
Introduction: Photographs are often used to tell a story. Historical photographs are a powerful medium that brings the observer close to the scenes of historical events. They are one type of Primary Source—created at the time of the event—that helps students learn about the past. Using photographs in the classroom allows students to develop skills of visual literacy, engage in reflection and speculation, develop questions, sharpen skills of observation, and come face to face with people, places, and things from times past.
Introduction: Explain to the students that photos can tell stories and that today they are going to learn how to "read" a photograph. Tell the students that photographs are one type of primary-source material that historians use to learn about people, places, and things from times past.
Discuss with the students a very brief history of photography (see Appendix, History of Photography) and point out that the photos they are about to examine are from the Hoover Presidential Library. Identify attributes of photos from the times covered in the photos. Examples: clothing styles, hairstyles, articles such as electric lights, etc. Students should understand that each photograph captures only a moment: that which the photographer wished to record with the limits of equipment available at that time.
Input: Place one photo on an Elmo (if available) or on a projection device. Have the students examine the photo as a group using some of the prompts below to generate discussion:
Tip: Explain to the students that there is a technique called the rule of thirds that is used to study visual media—photography, paintings, drawings, videography, and so on. This strategy divides the frame into thirds both horizontally and vertically, resulting in an invisible 3X3 grid over the photograph. This allows the viewer to examine only one portion at a time. Students can use blank sheets of paper to cover segments of the photo they are not presently examining.
Activity: Divide the class into groups of four. Give each group one of the photographs provided. Also give students a copy of Handout A or B. Allow the students time to work together to examine the photograph. Encourage the group to list all of the things they see in the photograph. They should first be concentrating on facts, not making inferences.
Tip: You might provide magnifying glasses so that students can examine details like clothing decorations, facial expressions, lettering on signs or posters, or telegraph wires, to name a few details.
Have students list questions they have about the photograph. These should focus on who, what, where, when, why, and how questions. Explain to the students that many of the questions will require further research.
Ask students to use the last column of Handout A to make some speculations about the photographs based on the facts they have gathered.
Allow each group to present their findings to the rest of the class. Then, as a class, discuss the groups' work. What additional information is going to be needed? What sources might be consulted to find out? Together with the class, create a list of 3–5 key questions for each of the photographs that can be answered through further research online or at the Hoover Presidential Library (http://hoover.archives.gov/).
Armstrong, Jennifer. Photo by Brady: A Picture of the Civil War. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005.
Buckingham, Alan. Photography (DK Eyewitness Books). London: Dorling Kindersley, 2004.
Czech, John. Jacques-Henri Lartigue: Boy with a Camera. New York: Silver, Burdett, Ginn, 1996.
Czech, Kenneth P. Snapshot: America Discovers the Camera (People's History). New York: Learner Publications, 1996.
Finger, Brad. 13 Photos Children Should Know. New York: Prestel, 2011.
Gustavson, Todd and George Eastman House. Camera: A History of Photography from Daguerreotype to Digital. New York: Sterling Innovation, 2009.
Mitchell, Barbara and Jan Smith. Click: A Story about George Eastman. Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Books, 1986.
Nardo, Don. Migrant Mother: How a Photograph Defined the Great Depression
(Captured History). New York: Franklin Watts, 2011.
Sandler, Martin W. The Dustbowl through the Lens: How Photography Revealed and Helped Remedy a National Disaster. United States: Walker Children's Books, 2009.
Sandler, Martin W. Photography: An Illustrated History ( Oxford Illustrated Histories). United States: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Sullivan, George. Matthew Brady: His Life and Photographs. New York: Franklin Watts, 1994.
Thompson, Kathleen and Hilary Mac Austin. Children of the Depression. Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2001.
Trueit, Trudi Stran. The Camera. (Inventions that Shaped the World) New York: Franklin Watts, 2006.
Unit Includes: Background on the History of Photography, Handout A and Handout B for analyzing photographs, photo set.