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Do You Read Your Photographs?

Do You Read Your Photographs?

I recently came across a Minnesota Historical Society LibGuide that really interested me. In their LibGuide, Photographs: Research & Ordering, they include a section on "images as primary sources." This got me thinking about how often we take our historical photos and really study them. Analyzing them for clues that may not be apparent from a cursory look.

Not all photos may require careful study. But in cases where photos show multiple people, an unknown background, an activity, or something else you are curious about, carefully analyzing the image should be done, just as we could analyze documents. This can especially be important when using a non-relative related photograph to provide historical or social context.

Minnesota Historical Society recommends "reading" photos by asking questions such as :

  • "What do you already know about the photo?
    • Photographer?
    • Location?
    • Date?
    • Caption or other written description?
  • Look at the entire photograph
    • What is the subject matter? (Portrait, building, event, etc.)
    • What is happening in the photo?
  • Look at individual parts of the photograph
    • What is in the Foreground? The Background?
    • Where is your eye drawn first? What less-obvious things do you notice?
    • Examine people, objects, signage, setting, time, etc...
  • What does the photo say to you? To others?
    • Are the people in the photo expressing certain emotions?
    • Does it evoke certain emotions in the viewer?
  • Why was the photograph taken, and who is the audience?
    • For a documentary or journalism purpose?
    • For sale (as a postcard, poster, etc.)?
    • To advertise something?
    • As an artistic expression?
  • What decisions did the photographer make when taking this picture?
    • Is it posed?
    • Why did they take the photo at that exact moment? What happened right before the photo was taken? Right after?
    • Did the photographer make the choices they did (perspective, focus, angles, etc.)?
    • Was the photo edited, cropped, or colorized? What did that change?
  • What questions do you have after viewing the photo?" [1]

Using this methodology, let's consider a historic photograph and what more can be learned from it.

I am an American
Courtesy: Library of Congress.

Take a minute, even if you know what this photo is about, to "read" the photo.

What is shown in the photo?

  • A building that appears to contain a grocery-type store called Wanto Co. A sign reading Grocery can be found at the top left. Fruits and vegetables are listed in the left-side window.
  • A car is parked next to a mailbox.
  • A sign that reads, "I am an American."

What is the purpose of this photograph, and who is the audience? This most likely is not a family photo. It appears to be more of a documentary photo. The photographer seems to have taken it to document a moment in time.

Just looking at the photograph itself, we don't know the answer to who the photographer is or why they took the photo. Research into newspapers and city directories might provide us with a clue about Wanto Co. Adding information about the car might help to date the photo.

We may ask why a sign stating I Am An American is added. Why would this be important to announce to a community?

If we go to the website Flickr the Commons and see the page for this photo uploaded by the Library of Congress, we read that the photo was taken by Dorthea Lange, who spent some time taking photographs for the US government. The description states:

Oakland, Calif., Mar. 1942. A large sign reading "I am an American" placed in the window of a store at [401 - 403 Eighth] and Franklin Streets on December 8, the day after Pearl Harbor. The store was closed following orders to persons of Japanese descen[t]

The description tells us more. We can assume that the store owner was of Japanese descent. This information can lead us to other questions about the time period, the owner, and his store. Googling adds even more to this story, including information about the sign commissioned by Tatsuro Matsuda, whose family owned the store, and the taking of the photo. You can read more in the article The Wanto Co Family.

Start Reading Your Photos

It's said that a photo is worth a thousand words, but when we take time to read it, we may find more information than what's on the surface. What questions do you consider as you "read" your historic photographs? Have you ever used those questions to learn more about the photos?

[1] "Images as Primary Sources," Photographs: Research & Ordering ( accessed 1 May 2023).


Gena Philibert-Ortega is an author, instructor, and researcher. She blogs at Gena's Genealogy and Food.Family.Ephemera. You can find her presentations on the Legacy Family Tree Webinars website.



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