Some photographs have almost unlimited sources of information—if you look closely enough (see photos at right). Examine the type of clothing and transportation shown in an image to understand the material culture of the time. Notice the advertisements in a photo to absorb the era's popular culture. By reading a photograph, you're literally pulling information from it. When used in collaboration with other historical evidence, still images are tools essential for studying the past.
Before breaking out the magnifying glass, there are a few things you should remember to look for when reading a photograph:
- What is the photographer trying to do? Try to figure out if there was any sort of bias on the part of the photographer. Are they trying to convey a message with this photo? Who was the intended audience?
- What are the physical traits of the people in the photo? Body language, facial expression, gesture and posture speak volumes about a person's state of mind. What do they say about this moment in time?
- How is material culture shown? Notice the type of clothing people are wearing, the kind of cars being driven and the way the buildings look. Figuring this out will help you determine economic and class circumstances.
- How is popular culture shown? Look for advertisements in the photo—see how advertisers felt they could best represent the public at that time. Use those clues to examine issues of ethnicity, race and gender.