Johnstown Area Heritage Association
Tools for Hands-on History

Reading a Photograph

Old photographs can be rich primary sources for historical research and a great help in communicating the results of your research to others. But first you have to learn to:

  1. Look closely,
  2. Decipher the clues you find,
  3. Imagine the circumstances behind the photo, and
  4. Confirm your theory with more research.

Step 1: Identify

Observe every clue in your photo with this exercise:

Step 2: Interpret

Put words to what you are seeing, using only the evidence in the photo:

Step 3: Imagine

Imagine the “context” of the photo—outside its frame and instant of time:

Step 4: Investigate

Verify the photo with other sources.

When you get ready to use your photo in a research project, be sure to document it as you would any other primary source. If you must make a copy (for example, if the original is too fragile to be used for an exhibit or cannot leave an archive), be sure you tell when and where you looked at the photo.

Adapted from material ©1987 by Susan K. Donley. Used here by permission. All other rights reserved.

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