Mastering Photograph Interpretation for  Historical Analysis

Old photo of people undated main

Photographs are wondrous primary sources in historical research. They provide snapshots of the past. Nonetheless, photographs are not merely neutral. They tell a story with specific purposes and techniques. Photographic interpretation involves closely analyzing pictures to determine what is and is not present. Cropping can be a helpful tool to study each aspect. We can also explore the purpose and motives of the photographer. 

The Power of Photographs 

Photography developed in the 19th Century. Photographs provide snapshots of the world. They are memory aids that provide duplicates of persons, places, and objects. 

Photographs are primary sources. A primary source is a firsthand account. The author or creator was there when it happened.  Photographers saw the subjects of their photos. 

Pictures can help shape our understanding of culture, history, and the people who appear in them. They are a glimpse into the past. Each photo tells a story. As the saying goes, a “picture is better than a thousand words.” Nonetheless, your teacher will still want you to write essays


We crop photographs to edit out unnecessary and unpleasant aspects. The picture might be too large for the frame or to use as a screensaver. We might not want certain people or objects in the final photograph. The final result is different from what we saw through the lens.

Our use of cropping is an example of how photographers manipulate. A photograph is not merely an accurate view of the world.  Photographers carefully determine what will be in and out, using certain angles and editing techniques. People wear specific clothing. They pose in certain ways.

Painters use several techniques. Photographs are no different. A close-up can focus on a subject that is “in our face.” A wide shot provides a more detached reaction. 

Cropping is also a helpful tool when interpreting photographs. We can focus on specific aspects that we might otherwise overlook. We can look at the different parts separately.  

Observe the Photo 

The first step in analyzing a photograph is to take a close look.

Who is in the photograph? What places, objects, and activities are present? Do you notice something not in there that would logically be there? Why was it not there? 

When was the photograph taken? The time will provide context. The name of the photographer can help. Different photographers have different styles and goals. 

The main subject (focus) will be in the center of the frame. The person, place, or object will be the most dominant. Pay attention to the background. It can provide helpful details. 

Photographs often have captions, which are brief descriptions written at the bottom of the photo. Different people write captions. They might not be accurate. They highlight a specific message the photographer and someone else wants to underline. 

Analyze The Photo  

When we analyze a photograph, we interpret its meaning and intended message.

The main subject of a photograph is the primary focus. It is what the photographer wants us to remember the most. Photographs are not random. It tells a specific story.

When interpreting a photograph, we should look at the time, setting, and the relationship between persons and objects. We should determine our emotional reaction from viewing it. 

If we study the photographer and the period involved, it helps provide additional context and understanding. Pictures are a means to “be there” when studying history. 

A famous picture from the Vietnam War is a crying nude child running away during a napalm attack. The title says it all: “The Terror Of War.” It is a snapshot chosen for a specific purpose. Civil War portraits use uniforms, props, and poses to promote particular messages. 

Final Analysis 

After we observe and interpret, we can make a final analysis. 

What is the purpose of the photograph? Does the photographer mainly want to provide informative snapshots of a person, place, or event? 

Or do they have a specific message to send? How the photographer staged the picture helps us to determine their bias and perspective. It helps us understand their motives.  

Finally, a helpful way to make conclusions is to answer the standard “w” questions. The six basic questions are who, what, when, where, why, and how. How does each apply to the photograph?

Applying What We Learned  

This picture shows a buried barn in South Dakota at the height of the Dust Bowl in 1936. 

There is no text. What do you see? The picture calls to mind the desolation that the dust storms brought. No life is around. A lone forlorn structure is in the background.  

The black-and-white photograph and the simplicity of the wheels and machinery provide some hints about the time. Soil or dust covers everything. Can this be about the Dust Bowl? 

We can apply each aspect of photograph interpretation to pictures like these. Cropping would help us study specific parts of the photograph. Go ahead. Give it a try.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.