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[Detail] Louis Armstrong, Carnegie Hall, New York, N.Y., ca. Apr. 1947

Historical Comprehension: Using Visual Data

Photographs can be valuable historical sources. However, they must be carefully studied and analyzed, just as any other primary source would be analyzed. Use the tips below to analyze this photograph of a jazz audience in 1948.

In analyzing a photograph, it is helpful first to observe the photograph without drawing any conclusions. For example, you might ask such questions as:

  • When was the photograph taken?
  • Where was the photograph taken? What was the significance of this location?
  • Who is in the photograph? What is the relationship of the various people pictured?
  • What objects are shown in the photograph? What is the significance of these objects?
  • Why was the photograph taken?
  • What choices did the photographer make about posing, grouping, lighting, where the photographer was positioned in relation to the subject? How do the photographer's choices influence what the viewer sees in the photograph?

Next, note your personal reactions to the photograph, anchoring your subjective response in something seen in the photograph:

  • How does looking at the photograph make you feel? How do the photographer's choices influence your response to the photograph?
  • What associations do you have with the setting of the photograph or the people and objects portrayed?

Next, place the photograph in a larger historical context. What do you know about the period in which the photograph was taken or about the event or people depicted? What does this photograph add to your understanding of the period, event, or people?

Finally, consider what you can conclude from your analysis of the photograph. For example, what can you conclude about the jazz scene, jazz audiences, or life in 1948? Use the same process to analyze any photograph from the collection that interests you.