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Photojournalism and the American Presidency - Reading America's Photos
Photojournalism and the American Presidency - Reading America's Photos
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Center for American History

Reading Photographs
What do books, newspapers and photographs have in common? They can all be read. When it comes to analyzing history, visual images are just as important as the written word. “Photographs are important for research in history because they contain useful information,” says Don Carleton, Director of the Center for American History. “There's all sorts of bits and pieces of a story that you can see illustrated in a picture.”

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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
Mission of the Center

Reading Photographs

Press and the Presidency

Additional Resources

See the photographs from the Center for American History

President Gerald Ford after Sara Jane Moore fired a pistol at himFirst Lady Nancy Reagan and Raisa GorbachevGeorge W. and Laura Bush on election night 2000

Video Clip
Still from Reading Photographs video
"Reading Photographs"

The Briscoe Center for American History