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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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"Reading Photographs" Transcript
Don Carleton, Ph.D., Director of the Center for American History:

Photographs are important for research in history because they contain useful information. There's all sorts of bits and pieces of a story that you can see illustrated in a picture.

Photographs can be read just like a diary or a letter or any other text.

In fact, there's some photographs that have almost an unlimited source of information if you blow them up...if you take a magnifying glass to them, then you can start pulling off even more bits and pieces of information.

First of all, if you can, you try to determine who the photographer was. That's important...because it will tell you possibly what the photographer was trying to do.

And then what is the photographer trying to do? You know? What does the photograph mean? Is there some message here? Are they trying to tell us something? Okay?

And then the about material culture, you know...what kind of clothing, what kind of transportation, what did the buildings look like...all issues of material culture during a period of time. The issues of popular culture: we see that in the advertisements. Ethnicity, race, gender. On and on and on and on. And that is how you read a photograph. You literally pull this information out.

But it is important to understand that when you are talking about photographs as evidence, photographs are like any other kind of evidence in history. They have to be used critically. They have to be used in corroboration with other evidence as well. Very few photographs stand on their own in terms of ability to teach you about something. You have to link these photographs to other kinds of sources, but they are an important part of the chain.

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"Reading Photographs"


The Briscoe Center for American History