Analyzing Photographs

by | Jan 11, 2021 | Analysis, College (1-2), History

Analyzing historical photographs entails three methods of visual analysis: Observation, Reflection and Questions. These methods provide a way to view, analyze and write about photographs. For the purposes of explaining the methods of visual analysis, this section relies on Alexander Gardner’s Lincoln on Battlefield of Antietam, Maryland, but the same methods can be applied to analyzing any image.

i Lincoln on Battlefield of Antietam, MD, Alexander Gardner, 10/2/1862


The first step in visual analysis is observation. Describing an image is a useful technique for looking closely at an image and absorbing its details. Descriptions should remain objective, discussing what can be seen without drawing conclusions about a photograph’s meaning. For instance, when looking at Lincoln on Battlefield of Antietam, Maryland, you could say, “The tall man in the middle is wearing a black suit,” but it would be inappropriate to say “The tall man in the middle is dressed as if going to a funeral.” This sort of subjective comment should be reserved for the reflection section. A description can begin anywhere, but generally it is easiest to begin by discussing the subject matter. For example, a description of this image might begin with the basic statement, “In this black-and-white image, three men stand in front of a tent.” Once you have stated the subject matter, simply elaborate on what you can see: “The man in the middle is the tallest and is posed with his hands down at his sides, wearing a formal black suit with a bowtie and a tall stovepipe hat. The man to the left is wearing a worn dark suit and a bowler hat. The man to the right is dressed in a military uniform with bright buttons and epaulets. The tent is pitched on a grassy clearing with trees in the background.” Some questions that might help include: What do you notice first? What people and objects are shown? How are they arranged? What is the physical setting? What other details can you see?


This section should focus on the emotions and interpretations an image evokes for the viewer. Different viewers will react to the same image in different ways, so there are no wrong responses. Some questions that might help include: Why do you think this image was taken? When do you think it was taken? What do you think is happening? Who do you think the audience was for this image? What can you learn from examining this image?

For this section, knowing the historical context can be very important. In our example, it is important to know that the Battle of Antietam was one of the most bloody and brutal battles of the Civil War. Appropriate comments would include the following: “The tone of Lincoln on Battlefield of Antietam, Maryland seems very bleak. The somber facial expressions of the men, coupled with the barren grass and sparse trees give an overall impression of death and dying. There is also a sense of loneliness about the figure of President Lincoln. Although standing next to two men, he seems totally isolated. He is unresponsive to the camera; rather than making eye contact, he stares distantly off into space, increasing the sense of isolation.”


The final step is to question what might be missing. What do you wonder about? Does it answer the who, what, when, where, why and/or how?


This assignment is worth 35 points – to earn full credit, your paper must be a minimum of 2-3 pages, and must follow all writing guidelines as spelled out in the syllabus, include all the points below.

  1. Choose a photograph from historical photograph collection located at
  2. Research any significant events that are happening in the country and/or in the location that the photograph references.
  3. Analyze the photograph using the points noted above and jotting down notes of your observations.
  4. Using your research write your paper in which you provide an introduction, your research (Observations, Reflections, any questions) and a conclusion.
    1. In the introduction include a physical description of the photograph and any other pertinent details about the creation of the photo.
    1. Provide a synopsis of your research into the events, people and background or supporting information.
    1. Then provide a discussion on your reflections and any additional questions
    1. In your conclusion, tie it all together. Think about this photograph in a history textbook.  What time period/section of the book would it be in and why? In your conclusion write a short image description that would go with the photo. Be specific about why it would be an important addition to the text.
  5. Finally, print a copy of the photo and attach it to your paper.

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