History Photograph Analysis Assignment

Photographs may very well be our favorite form of media, and have been almost since the first forms of photography appeared in the 1830’s. Digital photography has simply accelerated what was already popular.

History is concerned with the study of change over time. Photographs can show this in a uniquely powerful way. Those changes show in numerous ways, in changes in the skyline, landscape, neighborhood, appearance of individuals or groups. They reveal customs, preferences, and styles. You can see celebrations, work, play, home, courtship, marriage, children, responses to stress, hardship, and much more.

For this assignment, we will be looking at visual evidence from New Deal programs and agencies, which were created under the leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. These programs had a powerful impact on the relationship of government to the people of the United States.

This lesson takes you through a process of examining primary sources, specifically photographs, to develop a sense of the profound impact the Great Depression had on real people’s lives.

Using guidelines from the Library of Congress, you will systematically analyze one of the photographs from below. To help you with this, you will use the “Primary Source Analysis Tool,” available HERE (http://www.loc.gov/teachers/primary-source-analysis-tool/.)

Directions on how to use the tool are available HERE. An example of how to complete the assignment is posted after the assignment details.

YOUR ASSIGNMENT is to choose one of the photographs, and work through filling out the primary source analysis tool. Complete all elements: observe, reflect, question, and further investigation. The more detail the better. You need to show serious contemplation of the question.

Photographs are heavily mediated. What do I mean by that? They are useful in constructing and telling stories because they provide evidence of events, but the act of taking a picture is a ritual in itself. Sometimes the decision to take a photograph lends importance to an event that otherwise would be lacking. Some photographs are works of art deliberately created, think Ansel Adams, or Dorthea Lange. The creator has motivations for creating them. They may be attempts to capture other art, like sculpture. Advertisers use photographs to entice, realtors to display, archaeologists to record, journalists to report, reformers to prod. Whatever the use, historians can use them. Cameras and film or memory are tools in the hands of the photographer, which means that the output is at least partially controlled, thus mediated.

For anyone who has ever worked in a darkroom, you know that there are lots of things you can do to interpret what the camera captured. You can control the size of the image, the framing, burning and dodging, type of paper, filters, etc. You can control even more when your darkroom becomes digital. Photos can often capture things the photographer did not see when taking the picture.

Choose from one of those

Depression refugee family from Tulsa, Oklahoma, Dorothea Lange


Part of an impoverished family of nine on a New Mexico highway, Dorothea Lange


Son of depression refugee from Oklahoma now in California, Dorothea Lange


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