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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Reading Photographs

Do you own old photographs that have no captions or identifying information? Are you left wondering when and where the images were shot and who and what is featured in them?  Well, in photograph archives we are often in the same situation.  Many times we acquire photographs that have little or no documentation.  As photograph archivists, we are trained to look for visual cues to identify the who, what, when, where, and why of photos.

Visual literacy, that is, “reading photographs” is vital skill for working with images. You can uncover a great deal of information by studying the visual elements of a photograph. For example, clothing and cars can often help you narrow down the time period of when an image was shot.  Building and street signs can also help you identify locations.  Additionally, it’s helpful to study the photograph as a physical object.  For example, deciphering if a photograph is an albumen or gelatin silver print will also help narrow down dates.  Determining the format of an image, e.g. stereograph vs. postcard, will help you understand the purpose and function of an image.   Asking and answering such questions can reveal a wealth of information.

Then there are times when you read and reread a photograph and you are still left with unanswered questions.  Such is the case with the Peter A. Juley & Son photographs listed below.  These images have me stumped. 

This Barnett Newman (1905-1970) image is the most requested photo in our archive, however we have never been able to answer the who question.  Here, Newman and an unidentified woman stand in front of his painting, "Cathedra” in his New York studio in 1958.  Who is the mystery woman?




This photo of American painter and illustrator, Constantin Alajalov (1900-1987) always makes me laugh.  What is he doing?  A game of hide and seek? 

Do you have any answers to these questions? Post them in the comments section below. Also, practice your visual literacy by looking at our Peter A. Juley & Son Collection on our digitized collections page and Flickr Commons set, or search online.   


Happy photograph reading!


Emily Moazami, Photograph Archivist, Research & Scholars Center, Smithsonian American Art Museum

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