Images are visual documents that record history. A picture captures a moment in time, but can be worth a thousand words to the viewer. Every image meant something to the person who created it. Learning how to unlock the meaning of images can provide students with a broader understanding of events, objects and people. The American Memory collections are filled with fascinating photos and prints that have stories to tell about holidays and traditions. Begin by having students analyze this 1876 chromolithograph commemorating July 4. Study the visual details using the three-step process – observe, think and ask. Use these guiding questions or create your own. Students can use a graphic organizer to record their observations.
• Observe: Have students carefully study the image. What people or objects can be seen? How are they arranged? Describe the people in the photograph. How are they dressed? What are they doing? What is the expression on their faces? What is the physical setting? Describe the objects in the background? What other details can be seen? Use descriptive terms so that someone who has not seen the image might visualize it.
• Think: Read the caption for clues. When was this chromolithograph created? Who is the artist? What occasion was being celebrated? Use these clues to draw upon students' prior knowledge. What do they already know about the time period depicted in the drawing? What do they know about the Fourth of July? Why do they think the artist created this image? Did people pose for this drawing or was it drawn from imagination? What might have happened a minute before the event being pictured? What might happen a minute after? Does anything in this image relate to the students' personal experience?
• Ask: After studying the image, reading the caption, making careful observations and drawing on prior knowledge, what questions remain? What would students like to know to help them better understand this lithograph? What resources can help them find out about this holiday? What kind of celebrations took place on July Fourth in Washington in 1876? How many stars were on the American flag on this date? What building are the people standing on? What is a chromolithograph? Who was the artist? Are there other illustrations by the same artist in the American Memory collections? How and why might this drawing have been published? What other primary source documents might help them place this drawing into historical context?
Visual analysis becomes easier with practice. Using images can make history come alive for students. Model this process by analyzing one image with the entire class. Then divide students into pairs or small groups to practice this technique on their own. Follow the links on the left for a sampling of holiday-related photographs and images from the American Memory collections. Search for more images using specific holiday names (Independence Day, Labor Day), seasons (summer), names (George Washington), activities (gardening, swimming) or related terms.