Photographs: Interpretive and Instructional Strategies

By Arlen, Shelley | Special Libraries, Fall 1990 | Go to article overview

Photographs: Interpretive and Instructional Strategies


Arlen, Shelley, Special Libraries


Photographs: Interpretive and Instructional Strategies

* While literature profliferates on the theoretical and practical aspects of bibliographic instruction in libraries, little attention has been paid to the strategies involved in analyzing non-book media. Photographs in particular are a medium that can offer a wealth of information to the student or scholar engaged in historical research. This article gives some principles to consider in the interpretation of historical photographs and suggests techniques for teaching these principles.

Last year marked the 150th anniversary of the introduction of the photograph, a document now firmly established as an important research tool. More and more, librarians and archivists are actively collecting, preserving, and providing access to photographic materials.

The library/archival professions as a whole, however, have been slow to take the same interpretive and instructional role toward photographic resources that is applied to other information sources. This is unfortunate, for photographic collections not only offer unique research opportunities but can also develop critical thinking skills, as well as serve as a public relations tool. The charm and nostalgia of historical photos make them ready attention-getters for even the most bored undergraduate or the busiest executive.

Hesitation in taking an instructional role is understandable. Photographs have a subjective element that, to the unpracticed eye, is difficult to define. The visual realm has an inherent and compelling power that is emotionally moving, but also causes intellectual suspicion; furthermore, most people are well aware that photography is as much an art as a science.

But photographs, like written texts, can be analyzed for meaning beyond their more apparent qualities. Visual interpretation is not necessarily difficult though it can be complex; it is essentially a task of learning what questions to ask about a photograph and what features to look for in answering these questions. While most people have not been trained in visual analysis, many of the principles involved are simply common-sense, which people usually follow at an unconscious level.

Responsible analysis and evaluation, however, require identifying and making explicit the unconscious assumptions people make about an image, as well as those assumptions, attitudes, and values implicit in the visual document itself. Such scrutiny combined with placing the photograph in a socio-cultural/historical context, can reveal a great deal about the people, life, and times of the period depicted--and perhaps about ourselves. While the following paper focuses primarily on the analysis of photographs in their social, economic, and historical context, other types of analysis (geographic, technological, psychological, artistic, etc.) are possible with other types of images.

To begin interpreting a photograph, it must first be described as specifically and cocretely as possible. The more facts known about an image, the deeper an interpretation can be. Start with the basics, look at the details, study relationships, and end with a conception of the whole. It takes some experience to learn how to decipher visual codes, but once comfortable with this process, librarians and archivists can help others with their own interpretive discoveries. I will first discuss some of the general methods for analyzing photographs, then turn to some special problems photographs pose.

The Photograph as Artifact

The basics or "givens" of a photograph are the concrete and interrelated facts of its existence as a material artifact. These are the features that identify the object as a unique photograph, the objective data used to accession, catalog, and classify the item. Technical aspects include the kind of photographic process represented (daguerreotype, ambrotype, tintype, glass plate, albumen print, etc. …

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