Online Photography Archives Enable Teaching with Primary Sources
Analyzing photographs inspires visual literacy and critical thinking in students.
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 Life Magazine's Online Archive Produces Teachable Moments."