Reading Photographs

What can an old photograph tell us about history? Plenty! Photographs hold a wealth of information about what life was like in the past. In this activity, you will act like a sleuth and uncover the clues!

Photographs can be “read” just like any other historical document. There is the factual information (who? what? where?) and what is readily visible. Then there are the decisions behind why the photograph appears the way it does, and the broader context of its creation. Analyzing a photograph requires you to observe closely, pose questions and make hypotheses, and then synthesize your observations and reflections in the context of what you already know about history.

News Office Storefront, Portland, ca. 1918

Collections of the Maine Historical Society: https://www.mainememory.net/artifact/18561

Step 1: Reading a Historical Photograph

Take a few minutes to look closely at this historical photograph from the collections of Maine Historical Society. (Click on the link to visit the Maine Memory Network, then Zoom in on the image to get a better view!)

Before looking at the description, use these questions to observe, reflect on, and interpret what you see:

Observe

  • What do you notice first when looking at the photo?
  • Describe the setting and any people, objects, and activities you see.
  • Is there any textual information present in the photo? Notice the posters displayed in the window.
  • Is there any evidence about the photo as a physical object? Notice the fingerprints and writing that are visible on the image.

Reflect

  • What choices did the photographer make? Consider composition, focus, and perspective.
  • What do these choices reveal about the photo’s purpose or photographers point of view?
  • When might the photo have been created? What evidence can you use as clues? Clothing, information in posters, cobbled sidewalk, black-and-white format, etc.
  • What story does the photo tell?

Interpret

  • Why do you think this photo was created? What makes you think so?
  • What can we learn about life in the past from studying this photo?
  • Who is missing in this photo? Think about what experiences are included or left out of the historical record.
  • What questions does it leave you with? What do you want to know more about?
  • What other primary sources could you find to help answer those questions?

Step 2: Comparing Past and Present

Now read the title and full description. Does this new information change your understanding?

  • Title: News Office Storefront, Portland, ca. 1918
  • Description: Alexander Boothby in front of a newspaper storefront (likely the Portland "Evening Express") in Monument Square. The posters in the window outlined Spanish Flu casualties, WWI peace talks, women's division recruitment, war bonds and the Red Cross. The poster's content date this image between the Armistice in November 1918 and the Treaty of Versailles, signed in June 1919.
  • Collection: Portland Press Herald Glass Negative Collection
  • Subject headings: Influenza Epidemic, 1918-1919; World War, 1914-1918

What is pictured in the historical photo that is similar to today? What is different?

Inaugural Hug

Compare and contrast the historical photograph with a contemporary example: Inaugural Hug, from Isolating Together: Portland Public Library

What does the contemporary photo reveal about how we get the news today, and what has changed since 1918?

Step 3: Creating a Primary Source

Take a picture of something in your daily life that shows how you get news and understand what is happening in the world.

If you'd like, share your photograph with a Maine Contemporary Archives project. (Use this list to find a participating library near you.) By doing so, it will be preserved for future researchers to discover! Each project has its own Terms and Conditions for contributions; get in touch if you have any questions.

Resources

J. Paul Getty Museum: Exploring Photographs Curriculum 

Maine Historical Society: Maine Memory Network