George Lucas Educational Foundation

The Photo Archive Brings History to Your Classroom

Seven million free images are available to teachers and schools.
Grace Rubenstein
Former senior producer at Edutopia
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Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall appear at a protest against the blacklisting of Hollywood writers and actors.

Credit: Courtesy of

Alabama governor George Wallace stands in the doorway of the University of Alabama, physically blocking African American students from integrating the school. Humphrey Bogart, in Washington, DC, protests the blacklisting of artists by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the dusty surface of the Moon.

These and seven million other images of American history and culture are available on The relaunched site -- accessible to everyone but especially useful to educators -- makes the entire archives of photo giants Life magazine and Getty Images available free. Users can view galleries curated by the site's editors or search the library by names, dates, subjects, and locations. The archive chronicles current events, too, with daily news galleries and the addition of 3,000 new Getty photos a day.

Once America's leading photo-centric news magazine, Life chronicled the nation and the world for seven decades before issuing its last print publication in 2007. Life's last editor, Bill Shapiro, who heads up the project, wants students, teachers, and parents to use the site to make history more tangible. "The most iconic moments in American history -- we have those," Shapiro reports. "We didn't want simply to create a historical repository or a dusty archive. We wanted these events to feel as alive as they did when they happened."

Photos on the site are organized into five channels: news, celebrity, travel, animals, and sports. Visitors can print individual images and share them through sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Delicious. also allows users to create their own photo galleries (on, say, the life and work of Maya Angelou, for English class, or animal life in the Everglades, for science). All the site's tools are free.

The site also allows visitors to flip through a series of Life covers on World War II, view a gallery of backstage images from the opera (from the New York Metropolitan in 1943 to the Peking Opera during the 2008 summer Olympics), and compare portraits of Miss America 1945 and Miss America 2009. A search for "civil rights" turns up 7,104 photos and 10 curated galleries on such themes as the vote, the Freedom Riders, and Coretta Scott King. A search for F. Scott Fitzgerald returns 21 photos. Albert Einstein: 187. Jackie Robinson: 248.

An April 1942 cover of Life magazine highlights the U.S. Army Air Force's Bomber Task Force.

Credit: Courtesy of

Many of the photos and captions, taken together, tell a full story. For instance, there are 558 images of the 2000 Elian Gonzalez incident, which started when a woman fled Cuba with her young son for Florida. The boy's mother drowned en route, and after spending months living with her relatives in Miami, he was returned to Havana after the intercession of U.S. attorney general Janet Reno. The images show the boy's father and his lawyer, Cuban-American demonstrations in Florida, announcements by Reno, and Gonzalez celebrating his birthday with Fidel Castro after his return to Cuba.

Last Martin Luther King Day, as Shapiro and his team were building the archive's launch version, he used some of the images to illustrate his discussion with his own kids about the meaning of the holiday and the civil rights movement. "Until I showed them the pictures, I sensed they didn't grasp what I was talking about. How could they imagine what it's like to have fire hoses turned on them?" When he showed them the famous photos of protesters being hosed and attacked by police dogs, he recalls, "you could see an understanding. The pictures brought it to life."

In spring 2009, and offered our visitors the chance to choose an educational theme for a photo gallery created by the curators of Life's newly released online library. You voted, and here's a link to your winning choice: Civil Rights: Teachable Moments. And be sure to read how deputy editor Ben Cosgrove put together this gallery.

Grace Rubenstein is a senior producer at Edutopia.

Comments (9) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Elayne Isaacs's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What a wonderful resource, but it won't make me throw away the pile I have in my closet saved by my mom.

Alice Reilly's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Yeah! As a curriculum administrator for a large school district, this is a great resource that our teachers can use without having to worry about copyright. Hopefully others will follow this example. Thank you for making these photos available!

J Long's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Obviously a great photo archive, but I'm not sure what is meant by "free images are available to teachers and schools." Does this mean that they are available for free download? On the website, I don't see that option without licensing/purchasing. Maybe I'm just overlooking it. Can someone steer me in the right direction?

Andrew Pass's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

If a picture is worth a thousand words, how many words does an entire Life archive equal?

azimmer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think free doesn't mean USE freely.... always read the fine print. And while we're reading this, share that with the kids too. My interpretation is you may make a single copy for noncommercial. You MAY not make copies or publish etc etc etc. Am I right?

# Limited License.

You may access and view the content on the Web Site on your computer or other device and, unless otherwise indicated in these Terms and Conditions or on the Web Site, make single copies or prints of the content on the Web Site for your personal, non-commercial use only. Use of the Web Site and the services offered on or through the Web Site, are only for your personal, non-commercial use.
# Prohibited Use.

Any commercial or promotional distribution, publishing or exploitation of the Web Site, or any content, code, data or materials on the Web Site, is strictly prohibited unless you have received the express prior written permission from authorized personnel of SYW or the otherwise applicable rights holder. Other than as expressly allowed herein, you may not download, post, display, publish, copy, reproduce, distribute, transmit, modify, perform, broadcast, transfer, create derivative works from, sell or otherwise exploit any content, code, data or materials on or available through the Web Site. You further agree that you may not alter, edit, delete, remove, otherwise change the meaning or appearance of, or repurpose, any of the content, code, data, or other materials on or available through the Web Site, including, without limitation, the alteration or removal of any trademarks, trade names, logos, service marks, watermarks or any other proprietary content or proprietary rights notices. You acknowledge that you do not acquire any ownership rights by downloading any copyrighted material from or through the Web Site. If you make other use of the Web Site, or the content, code, data or materials thereon or available through the Web Site, except as otherwise provided above, you may violate copyright and other laws of the United States, other countries, as well as applicable state laws and may be subject to liability for such unauthorized use.

Shari Wargo's picture

Staff comment:

This article is referring to the fact that access to the Web site (and the images on the site) are free, not that the use of an image is free of charge. Copyright may still apply to these images, and so should be contacted if you happen to see an image you would like to use. Thank you so much for bringing up this question so that we could clear up any confusion others may have.

Jim Kidder's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am still unclear what is "free" and what is an allowable use of the images. Obviously access to the site and the ability to see the images is free, but what beyond that is allowed? Can students right-click the image(s) and incorporate into a photo montage presentation for a school project? If they are only doing it for educational, non-commercial purposes, is this an acceptable use?

Who would I contact to discuss more specifics?

Barbara Soto's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a geography teacher who lost my position due to the budget crunch. Your offer sounds like a great opportunity to develop new lesson plans.

Barbara  Soto's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I often feel like a stranger in a strange land. What happened to the America I grew up in? Were all the heroes and noble deeds done with ulterior purposes in mind? Surely government and politics were not as corrupt as now? Will access to pictures substantiate or reveal? I will be glad to use your data base for research. Thank you, Barbara Soto

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