Photographs offer a snapshot of a particular time and place, telling a careful viewer as much about the photographer as about the subjects of the pictures. That’s often particularly true when the photographer isn’t a member of the group being photographed.
One example from the Library of Congress’s collections is Edward S. Curtis, who dedicated most of his career to photographing Native American cultures and traditions to publish in a multi-volume book titled The North American Indian.
A close observation and study of even a randomly selected set of images will show that Curtis was photographing for a particular effect and purpose. The collection background indicates that ‘he believed that indigenous communities would inevitably be absorbed into white society, losing their unique cultural identities. He wanted to create a scholarly and artistic work that would document the ceremonies, beliefs, customs, daily life, and leaders of these groups before they “vanished.”’
Some critics suggest that he manipulated the images, cropping tourists or indicators of modern life out of his photos because that didn’t fit his perspective on Native Americans.
Students can select 8-10 photographs and study them for evidence or examples:
- of techniques that Curtis used. Are there props? How often does he take a close up? How often does he include background or use a long view? What is the effect of the choices?
- of whether particular photographs were taken for scholarly purposes or for artistic purposes.
- of what was important to the people being photographed.
In the comments, please let us know what your students see in these images.