Evaluating Photographs with RLH
Students tend to view photographs uncritically, treating them like they’re direct windows into the past. Several Reading Like a Historian lessons teach students to skillfully analyze historical photos through sourcing and contextualization.
Using the vast archive of the Library of Congress, these lessons feature many influential photographs in American history. Many of these lessons have related, ready-to-use assessments you can use to measure student understanding. Be sure to check the bottom of the page for related materials.
Photographs of the 19th Century
The Civil War Photographs lesson asks students to consider how technological limitations and the intended audience may have affected Alexander Gardner’s photos of Antietam.
What can Solomon Butcher’s photos tell us about homesteaders in 1880s Nebraska? In Great Plains Homesteaders, students consider artistic perspective and the circumstances in which photos were created.
Progressive Era Photographers
The Child Labor lesson features Lewis Hine’s powerful photos of child workers in the early 20th century. This lesson asks students to consider how Hine’s sponsors may have influenced what he shot.
Jacob Riis took iconic images of New York’s slums in the late 19th century. The Jacob Riis lesson asks students to evaluate them critically as evidence of living conditions facing immigrants at the time.
Edward Curtis captured influential images of the Piegan Blackfeet. This lesson asks students to contextualize photographs, considering how factors like cultural misunderstanding and the choices of Piegan subjects may have influenced the images.
Enduring Images of the Great Depression and World War II
Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” photo is often used to show the toll of the Great Depression. This lesson asks students to consider both its strengths and weaknesses as evidence of the past.
The Ansel Adams at Manzanar lesson asks students to reason about the perspective of the photographer and how that may have affected his choices when photographing an incarceration center for Japanese Americans.