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Information Literacy: How Do a Photographer’s Intention and Context Shape the Photograph?

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The camera might never lie, but photographers can manipulate a photograph. A recent Library of Congress blog post, Photographs Document Early Chinese Immigration, noted that “[photographer Arnold] Genthe is known to have edited his photographs…sometimes removing signs in English and cropping out westerners like himself…perhaps to make his pictures seem more authentic. But according to modern scholars…his photographs are now seen by many to convey an exoticized perspective on Chinatown.” One reader’s response emphasized the need “to consider the intention of the creator, as well as the ‘typical’ perspective of the time,” prompting me to think about how, as creators, students are aware of ways to generate a particular effect. Then I wondered how many of them remember that photographers have used techniques to shape their photographs since the early days of the technology. Studying and analyzing historical examples may remind students to apply a critical awareness to reading historical and current photographs.

Dead Confederate soldier in Devil’s Den. Timothy O’Sullivan, 1863

Destitute pea pickers in California, Dorothea Lange, 1936.

Civil War photographer Alexander Gardner documented the war and tried to inspire patriotic support for the Union cause. In some cases, he did so by composing both a scene and a narrative. The article The Case of the Moved Body presents two examples of Gardner’s photographs and accompanying text, along with a scholar’s analysis. The analysis concludes that Gardner most likely moved a body to a more picturesque location and added a prop firearm. Students might read the analysis, examine the image for clues, and then discuss the ethics of Gardner’s choices. Students might research to learn more about ethics and protocols for photographers at the time.

Dorothea Lange worked for the federal government as part of a documentary photography project which yielded the Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information collection. Lange produced an iconic photograph, Destitute Pea Pickers in California, colloquially known as Migrant Mother. Scrolling to the bottom of the item record will display four additional, less well-known, images that Lange took of the mother and children. Students might study the set and discuss the ways that the various photographs framed the scene. What effect was Lange striving to create? Invite them to consider why one version became so well known. Students might research ways in which the image has been used.

Corporal Jimmie Shohara [digital file from original negative]
Corporal Jimmie Shohara [digital file from original print]

In 1943, Ansel Adams documented life at the Manzanar Relocation Center. The collection Ansel Adams’s Photographs of Japanese-American Internment at Manzanar presents digital scans of both the original negatives and original prints. Comparing the negatives to the prints allows for study of how Adams cropped the images. Students might begin by comparing the print to the negative of Corporal Jimmie Shohara, paying particular attention to the impact of the cropping and the change in value. How do those changes affect impressions of the subject, Corporal Shohara? Students might examine other sets of negatives and prints or research Adams’s techniques.

The Library of Congress offers access to more than a million photographs online. Let us  know what your students discover as they explore and examine.



Comments (2)

  1. Do you have any job openings for a Penn State Graduate?

    Please reply. My daughter’s fiancĂ© would love to work at The Library of Congress in s media capacity

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