Historical Comprehension: Analyzing Photographs and Captions
Like other kinds of primary sources, photographs must be carefully analyzed. Although we may think of a photograph as an unbiased record of what occurred at the time and place pictured, the photographer does have a point of view that can influence many aspects of the finished photograph. In analyzing a photograph, think about the creator’s point of view: What was his/her purpose? Was the picture posed or “candid”? What is shown in the photo? What is not shown? Why did the photographer select the vantage point from which the photo is taken? Does perspective or framing influence the viewer’s response to the photo?
The Teachers Page includes a list of several tools for analyzing photographs. Look at several of these tools and pick two to use in analyzing the following photographs from the Newspaper Pictorials collection:
- “The Smoke and Rush and Roar of Battle on the Famous Hindenburg Line.” War of the Nations, December 31, 1919 .
- “Resting at Noon in Patch of Woodland So Peaceful that War Seems Far Away.” War of the Nations, December 31, 1919 .
- “Scarred and Battered Trees and Roads of France.” War of the Nations, December 31, 1919 .
- “Deliberately Laying Waste Abandoned Country When Compelled to Flee.” War of the Nations, December 31, 1919 .
Which of the two tools you used was more helpful in analyzing historic photographs? Explain your answer, using your analyses of the photographs listed above to illustrate your reasoning.
Photo captions or titles also require analysis. When a photographer mounts an exhibit of his/her work or puts together a book of images, the captions come from the photographs’ creator and thus help the viewer better understand his/her purpose. However, when photographs are used to illustrate a book or newspaper, the captions are written by an editor. The editor can shape the reader’s response to the photograph through a carefully written caption.
Examine the photograph below. Note that the caption has been omitted. Use one of the analysis tools you used before and your knowledge of World War I to analyze the photo. Try to decide who the people in the photo are and what they are doing.
Now find the caption given this photograph by the editors of the New York Tribune. What information does the caption add? What reaction do you think the editors hoped to elicit from readers through the language used in the caption? Write an alternative caption that you think would elicit a different reaction from the reader. For example, you might want to write a caption that would be used if the photograph were included in a world history, U.S. history, or German history text today.
Examine the photograph on the top of page 5 of the same issue of the New York Tribune. How does this caption reflect the times in which the photograph was taken? How might a similar photo be captioned today?