Using Photos as Historical Sources
My research into the work of the Women’s Timber Corps initiated me into the use of photographs as historical sources. Like many historians, I am in my comfort zone when using texts. Images, in contrast, I feel less sure about. As Holly highlighted in her recent post, historians need to be as confident with material and visual sources as they do with textual sources. But how are we do that? This is the thinking behind this post.
There are 2 main approaches to using photography in history. These are the:
- ‘the naïve realist approach’: historians understand photos essentially as two-dimensional documents, which accurately reflect the real world
- ‘post-positivist approach’: scholars such as Margolis, Rowe and Tagg especially question the reality of what the camera captures. They question whether photographs can ever really show an ‘unvarnished reality’.
Analysis of photographs tends to sit in in the middle of these two approaches. As Marianne Hirsch summarises, photos ‘could thus represent the universality of human experience, and … they could be effective instruments of that universality as well.’ The photos can be representative of experience – or effective instruments of it.
I share below a 7-step path to analysing photographs. I also include at the end some other useful material which might help if you’re interrogating photos as historical sources for the first time. Some of the most useful introductory books on using photographs as historical sources are those written by Tinkler which can be found in the bibliography. Many of the questions I share below are lifted and adapted from these key works – so be sure to check them out if you’re seriously considering using photos as historical sources.
You may think 7 steps is excessive. For some it might be. But the point of these 7 steps is to consider a photograph or image from many different perspectives. They begin looking at the photos rather broadly, before zooming in to look at different elements of the photos. We then zoom out again to look at their wider context when compared with other photos.
1 Reflect on your initial response
- What jumps out at you?
- How does it make you feel?
- What does it make you remember?
- Is the photo intentional?
- Do you feel there is anything strange, unusual or missing?
2 Identify basic details
- What is the photo of?
- When was it taken and by whom?
- What genre does the photo fit into? (for example, is it a personal, documentary or press photo?)
- Is it sepia, black and white, colour?
- What information has been added to photo afterwards (such as captions or watermarks)? Could any of
- this information be contested?
- What questions might the photo be asking?
3. Scrutinise the photo
- Is it posed, and if so, how? Where are people’s bodies and hands in relation to each other?
- ‘Are the subjects of the photo arranged in any sort of pose? If so, what?
- Where are people looking?
- What are they wearing?
- Is the photo showing action?
- What are their facial expressions?
- Why were people photographed in these ways?
- Surmise what people might have felt or thought about this photo?PlaceWhat is the physical relationship between people, animals, objects and environment?
- How are they arranged?
- How do they interact with the people and animals?
- How are they situated (and why)?
- Are they in the background, or the foreground?
- Are there props? If so, how and where are they used?
How is this shown through
- Camera angle
- Geometrical perspective?
4. Consider it as material evidence
Historiography increasingly focuses on the materiality of photos and an individual’s changing relationship with the photograph, understood as a three-dimensional object.
- What is its form? (Including size and paper form)
- How is it presented?
- What are the signs of its use?
- How has it been used, revised, kept or stored?
- How did this impact the photo’s status and how people viewed, used and made sense of it?
5 Undertake contextual research
Production. Look at what the photo reveals about the:
- Skills of the photographer
- Technology (was the use of black and white, colour progressive? Has it been edited or improved?)
- The photographer’s job, or the specifics of this photo/commission?
- Intended audiences
- Preparations by and for the subject
Specific conditions of the photo
- How did you encounter the photo?
- How is it presented in relation to other materials? (Examining photographs in conjunction with other objects which are stored with them becomes integral to understanding their materiality.)
- How was it circulated then? How is it circulated now?
- Is it viewed in public, domestic or international contexts?
6 Reflect on its meaning
- Content: how does the image construct a particular view of the world?
- Institutional frameworks: Does it mean something if it is shown in museums or in personal collections?
- Multiple viewers: How might different people interpret the photo?
- The photographer: What was their intended meaning?
- The subject: What was their intended meaning?
7 Compare it to other photos
Comparing with other photos, examine the similarities and differences in regards to:
Other things to consider
- Enlarging the photos: Are there any new details you notice?
- Researching photographic practices of the period: Was the photography progressive or regressive? Were the practices ‘normal’ or unusual?
- Grouping photos: Move photos around – place similar and opposite photos together. Do you notice anything new?
Well done for making it to the end of the 7-step magical path to analysing photos. I hope that using the above framework helps you to interrogate photos from many different angles. Please do comment below if you found this helpful, and if there is anything you feel is missing.
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