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C U R R I C U L U M    M A T E R I A L S

Rod Sellers


Main Ideas

Photographs are primary source documents and a rich source of information for history students. In addition, there are numerous sources of historical photographs that are accessible to students and may be used in a variety of interesting ways. Among those often overlooked sources are family photographs and photographs of local communities available in local community historical museums or in the archives of local newspapers.

Connection with the Curriculum
Analysis of photographs may be used in any social studies discipline for which historical photographs are available. Also, many of the techniques and activities may be adapted for use with any visual primary source material, such as posters, political cartoons, and works of art.

Teaching Level
Grades 7-12

Materials for Each Student

• Sample historical photographs

• Activity sheets

• Magnifying glass (optional)

Objectives for Each Student
• Improve analytical and perceptual skills through systematic analysis of photographs.

• Distinguish between fact and opinion through use of photographs.

• Realize the value of historical photographs as primary sources of historical information.

• Understand the importance of the photographer's influence and point of view on the finished photograph. Realize that photographs may be staged or altered.

• Appreciate the difficulty of accurately and properly labeling historical photographs.

• Understand the importance of placing photographs in their historical context through the use of other historical materials such as oral histories, newspaper articles, maps, and other primary sources.


Opening the Lesson
Begin this unit with a discussion of visual images throughout history: cave drawings, paintings, sketches, photographs, movies, video, and computer-generated images. How has each technology improved the recording of history? How has each enhanced the potential for inaccuracies and intentional distortion? The discussion can include some of the technological improvements in photography from early daguerreotypes to modern digital cameras.

Teachers might then ask students to think about photographs that might be used to tell their own family history. Which photographs would you use? Why? Which photographs would you not use? Why not?

Photo Collage


Family Photographs

Developing the Lesson
Distribute photocopies of the photographs that accompany Activities 1, 2, and 3. The originals should be available for the students who may need to check details not clear on the copies. A printing service may duplicate the photos using laser technology at a very reasonable cost and with near-photographic quality, or the teacher may project slides of the photos.

The photographs for Activity 3 are from the collection of the Southeast Historical Museum in Chicago. They were taken on Memorial Day, 1937, during what has come to be called the "Memorial Day Massacre". The teacher may want to discuss the subjectivity inherent in this label. Or the teacher may want to merely identify the photographs as Memorial Day, 1937. The incident occurred during the "Little Steel Strike" when picketing strikers marched toward the main gate of the Republic Steel Plant on the southeast side of Chicago and were fired upon by Chicago police who were protecting the plant. A newsreel film crew captured the images for posterity.

For Activity Sheet 4 ask students to bring in family photographs or albums from different stages of their families' history. Suggest that they ask older family members to help provide photographs or albums. It might be a good idea to send a note home to the family explaining the purpose of the activity and securing written permission from those who lend photographs to the students. Some families may not want photographs to be brought to school by students. If students do not have access to their own family photographs, teachers may provide samples for analysis. An excellent source of photographs on family history is John Dylong, Living History 1925-1940 (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1979), which is a photographic family history covering the period from 1925 to 1950. Teachers might also obtain family photographs from a local community historical museum or other sources.

Activity sheets may be completed by students individually, in small groups, or by the class as a whole.

Concluding the Lesson
Review the completed Activity Sheets with students and give them the actual captions and dates of the photographs for Activities 1, 2, and 3. Try to analyze the reasons for any inaccuracies in their original answers. Ask if the students think that the captions for the photographs are good descriptions? Discuss the dangers of jumping to conclusions about photographs for which there is limited information. This is also an excellent opportunity to discuss the importance of researching other sources—particularly primary sources—to verify conclusions drawn about photographs.

Activity 1                                              

Photograph A: Breakfast in the kitchen at 3850 N. Leavitt Street, Chicago, 1948. Photograph of his family by Martin J. Schmidt, ICHi-03102. Courtesy Chicago Historical Society.
Photograph B: Breakfast in the kitchen at 849 N. Wells Street, Chicago, January 10,1949. Photograph by John Puslis, DN-L 3228 for Chicago Daily News. Courtesy Chicago Historical Society.

Activity 2                                              

View, about 1909, south on Dearborn Street from Randolph Street. Courtesy Chicago Historical Society.

Activity 3                                              

Scenes from the Memorial Day Massacre, Republic Steel Chicago Plant, May 30,1937. Courtesy Southeast Historical Society and Southeast Chicago Historical Project.


Extending the Lesson
• Students should bring in family or historical photographs. They should utilize some of the strategies and techniques outlined in the activity sheets to analyze and interpret the photographs.

• Students may construct a history exhibit—possibly entering a history fair competition—that uses historical photographs to tell a story.

• Students could do a family history project using family photographs to tell their family histories. Discuss how these family photographs help to understand the historical background.

• Students might take photographs of historically or architecturally significant sites or details on buildings and conduct a contest to see who can identify the photographs. The contest could be run in the school paper or in a local community newspaper.

• Students could make a video from photographs of a family's history or community's history. Depending on the availability of equipment and the technical expertise of the students and teacher, the video could be made using a camcorder, a telecine converter, or equipment that transfers photos, negatives, or slides to videotape.

• Teachers could arrange a field trip to a local historical museum or to a local community newspaper so that students could view historical community photographs.

Assessing the Lesson
Teachers should provide students with a photograph that depicts an event of local historical significance. Students should then analyze the photograph for the class using the techniques learned in the lessons. Teachers should conduct a discussion with students that focuses on how students might view photographs differently after having completed these activities.

Family and Home


Activity 1

Study the two photographs on the two following pages. Do the following:

  1. Write a caption for each photograph.

  2. Complete the following for each photograph:

    • Who is present in the photograph?

    • What objects are present in the photograph?

    • Where was the photograph taken?

    • When was the photograph taken?

    • Who do you think the photographer was in each case?

    • Why do you suppose that this photograph was taken?

  3. Compare the two photographs. What similarities are there? What differences are there?

  4. Mentally divide the photograph into four quadrants. Study each quadrant carefully. What details do you notice that you did not notice previously?

  5. Do you think that the photographs are staged or not? Explain your answer. Why might they have been staged?

  6. Write a new caption for the photographs. Has the caption changed from your original caption?


Activity 1 - continued

Eating breakfast as a family


Activity 1 - continued

Eating breakfast as a family


Activity 2

Study the photo that you have been given. Answer the following questions.

  1. What are your first impressions of the photograph? What individual words would you use to describe your feelings and reactions to the photograph?

  2. List the individual elements of the photographs. Use the following outline.

    • People
    • Things
    • Actions

  3. At what time of day do you think the photograph was taken? Why?

  4. What generalizations would you make about the city where this photograph was taken? In what city do you think the photograph was taken? Why?

  5. List three questions you want answered about this photograph.

  6. Answer the three questions to the best of your ability.

  7. Where would you find the answers to your questions?

  8. Write a caption for the photograph.

Photograph on page 55 courtesy of: Chicago Historical Society. Photograph ICHi-03102. Photographer: M.J. Schmidt
Photograph on page 56 courtesy of: Chicago Historical Society. Photograph DN-L-3228. Photographer: John Puslis for Chicago Daily News


Activity 2 - Continued

Downtown Photograph


Activity 3

Study the four photographs that you have been given. Do the following:

  1. Write a caption for each photograph.

  2. At what event or occasion do you think these photographs were taken?

  3. What date would you give these photographs? Why did you select this date?

  4. These photographs were taken in 1937. Does that change any of your previous answers? What was going on in 1937 in the United States?

  5. If you were a newspaper editor, which photograph would you choose to accompany a news story about this occasion? Why?

  6. Which of the photographs would you be least likely to use with a news story? Why?

  7. Do you think that these photographs were staged? Why or why not?

  8. What sources would you search to obtain additional information about the actions taking place in the photographs?

Photograph on page 58 courtesy of: Chicago Historical Society. Photograph ICHi-04191. Photographer unknown


Activity 3 - continued

Photograph #1

Photograph #2

Photos courtesy of Southeast Historical Society and Southeast Chicago Historical Project


Activity 3 - continued

Photograph #3

Photograph #4


Activity 4

Bring in family photographs or family albums from different stages of your family's history. Perhaps older family members (grandparents, aunts, and uncles) might help provide photographs.

If you are unable to obtain your own family photographs, go to a local historical museum and see if it has family photographs available. Or use the photographs provided by your teacher. Answer the following questions.

  1. Who are the people in the photographs? What are they doing?

  2. When does the family take photographs? Is it on special occasions only, or are photographs taken at other times as well?

  3. What are the subjects of the photographs? Are they primarily of people? Which people? What objects are photographed (scenes, the house, the car)?

  4. What kinds of clothing or hair styles are the people in the photographs wearing? How are they different from those worn by people today? What objects in the photographs would not be in photographs taken at the present time?

  5. What does the photograph tell you about life at that time? Are there any clues or indications of how life was different for the people in the photographs?

  6. Describe the mood or feeling of the various photographs. Do the photographs seem natural, posed, happy, sad, or indifferent?

  7. Choose ten photographs to tell your family's history. Why did you choose these ten? Why did you omit other photographs? Would it be easier to tell your family history if you were able to choose more photographs? Why or why not?

  8. How do the family photographs reflect the historical events that were occurring at the time the photographs were taken?


Activity 5

Assign teams of students to research sources of local community historical photographs. A local historical society or museum, a local community newspaper, family albums, and even old high school year books might be good sources. Have the students take photographs of the same site or location as it exists at present. Analyze the similarities and differences that exist in the photographs of the same site at different points in time. Why have things changed? Why have certain things remained the same? Create a display showing the changes that have occurred over time.

House in the Woods

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