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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Online Photography Archives Enable Teaching with Primary Sources

Analyzing photographs inspires visual literacy and critical thinking in students.
By Barbara Tannenbaum

This article accompanies the feature "Life.com Chronicles the 20th Century."

A photograph is far more than a pretty picture. It's also a visual document, an object that scholars call a primary source because it captures an unfiltered, unique moment from a distant time or place.

"Teachers benefit from building a lesson with primary sources because these photos are artifacts created during the time period under investigation," says Elizabeth Lay, a retired English teacher from Oakland, California, and now content editor of Picture This, an online photographic archive created by the Oakland Museum of California History. "There is no additional interpretation layered on top of a photo, as there would be in a textbook written at a great remove from the event under discussion."

To start, you'll need at least one computer with Internet access and a projector. Another option is to sign up for multiple computers in a media lab. Next, follow these steps:

1. Select the Photographs

Life.com has far more photo galleries than appear on the home page. Use the customer search tool to hunt for images by topic or photographer. To find photos from other archives, use the Google Images search tool.

2. Research the Techniques of Visual Literacy

Online sources such as the Library of Congress's American Memory Web site provide lesson plans and question guides to help students think critically when examining photos. Don't miss the self-directed study modules on teaching with primary sources.

3. Develop a List of Questions Based on the Following Topics:

  • Subject matter: What is the main subject of this photograph?
  • Time: What might have happened just after or before the photo was taken?
  • Framing: What would be visible if you could move the camera left or right, up or down?
  • Vantage point: How far was the photographer from the images seen in the picture?
  • Dominance: What is the first thing you notice in the picture?
  • Original purpose: How was the photograph first seen or used? How is the photograph regarded today?
  • Intention: What do you think the photographer was trying to express through the image?

The process of analyzing photographs enables a student to develop an informed opinion about a work of art or moment in history.

"When you teach students how to be critical viewers, they learn how to elevate personal opinions into authoritative opinions," says Lay.

Barbara Tannenbaum is managing editor of Edutopia.

Go to "Life Magazine's Online Archive Produces Teachable Moments."

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