Corn husking on Glen Farm

Sarah Eddy photograph of Portsmouth children.

A vintage photograph is an excellent primary source. It is a snapshot of a moment in past time. How do you get the most information from a photograph?  You have to spend time with the photo and carefully look at the details.

Steps in Analyzing a Historical Photograph

  1.  Study the photograph for at least two minutes to get an overall view. Think about why the photographer took this image. Does it record an event? Is it a professional portrait? Is it a postcard meant to show off interesting landscapes and buildings in town?
    In your mind, divide the photo into four quarters.
  2. Look at each quarter separately. Use a magnifying glass if it helps you to enlarge and note the details of the picture.
  3. If there are people in the photo? What can you tell about them. How old are they? What can you tell from the clothes they are wearing?
  4. If this is a photo of an event, what is happening?
  5. When and where was the photo taken?
    a. Are there clues about the location? Does the landscape or buildings look familiar? What do you see in the background?
    b. What year or decade was it taken? Can you tell from the signs, vehicles or even the presence of electric wires.
    c. What season is it? Is there snow on the ground, leaves on the trees?  Are people dressed for warm or cold weather?
    d. What time of day is it? Can you tell by shadows or lighting?
  6. Use a magnifying glass to find the objects that are in the photo. Are there tools, signs, buildings, vehicles?
  7. What questions does the photograph raise? Can you think of other sources that could help answer those questions.  Would a map help? How about a city directory?