Photographs as a Primary Source
Primary sources are firsthand accounts or direct evidence of an event or period under study. These types of sources include, but are not limited to, letters, interviews, photographs, and cultural artifacts such as coins, everyday objects, and works of art.
By studying these original materials, students and researchers have the opportunity to learn about what was important to the people who lived at that time, discover what life was like through the lens of these objects, and consider ways these sources connect to our lives in the twenty-first century.
In the sections below are resources for you to explore with your students. The materials focus on a selection of photographs from the Ackland’s collection and how to explore these works of art as a primary resource. Although most content may be appropriate for middle school and above, the materials can be modified per grade level.
Copyright Burk Uzzle
Learn About the Art
Watch the videos below and look closely at three different photographs from the Ackland’s collection. Discover what each image tells us about the subject and the importance of the artistic choices made by the photographer.
The buttons below link to writing and art-making activities to extend your art experience. All materials are printable and can be done at school or home. Consider using the images below or other primary source photographs from the Ackland’s collection to complete the activities.
Learn how to take your own photographs based on key characteristics of photography, such as framing, vantage point, and light in the art making activity “Using Your Photographic Eye.”
Resources for Students
Find Art Primary Sources
What are you researching? What type of object(s) do you think might help you learn more about the people and events of the past? Museums are home to art objects of all kinds, ancient to contemporary, which can be used as primary sources. Visit museum websites to find images and information about artworks.
Search for objects using museum online collections, which usually allow to you filter your results by type of object, such as painting or photograph, by artist, or by the date in which the object was created. View the Ackland’s collection database here.
To help answer any questions you still have about the artwork, use books, articles, and credible web resources for your research.
The following is a selection of key web resources:
- Photographic Processes Video Series & Glossary, Eastman Museum. Online resource on the major types of photographic processes, from early daguerreotypes to digital prints.
- Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, United States. Online essays and visual timeline using thematic and geographical exploration of global art history through the Met’s collection.
- The Museum of the World, British Museum, London, United Kingdom. An interactive resource with audio, text, and themes to highlight objects from across time and the world.
- Art History, SmartHistory. An overarching art history learning tool that covers prehistoric art to today.
Also, consider visiting your local library to access print materials.
Cite Your Sources
When using primary resources in your research, it is important to give credit to your sources as you would a secondary source, such as a book or article. Use the following resources to learn how to accurately cite your primary sources:
Resources for Teachers
Using Primary Sources – Library of Congress (LOC)
The Library of Congress website provides tools to help teachers effectively use primary sources. The “Using Primary Sources” section contains Primary Source Sets, with source material organized by key topics, and teacher guides to assist with analyzing specific types of primary sources (see Analyzing Photographs and Prints).
Also consider viewing “Teaching with the Library of Congress”, a blog from the Library of Congress for teachers to discover and discuss effective techniques for using the LOC’s primary sources in the classroom:
- “What Makes a Primary Source a Primary Source?” discusses how to determine if an object is a primary source.
- “Reading Portraits” focuses on analyzing portraiture.
Engaging Students with Primary Sources – Smithsonian National Museum of American History
Reference guide for teachers with practical examples of how to use primary sources in the classroom. Includes strengths and limitations, tips, and activities for documents, photographs, oral histories and objects. Also includes a bibliography and websites featuring primary source materials.
DocsTeach – National Archives
An online tool for teaching with documents, from the National Archives, providing access to thousands of primary sources, ranging in document type and covering a variety of historical topics. Includes ready-made activities to engage students in analyzing primary sources. With a free account, you can save and share source materials and activities, and copy or modify activities to fit your needs.
W.6.2 – W.8.2 Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas, concepts, and information through the selection, organization, and analysis of relevant content.
W.6.3 – W.8.3 Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, relevant descriptive details, and well-structured event sequences.
SL.6.2 – SL.8.2 Interpret information presented in diverse media and formats and explain how it contributes to a topic, text, or issue under study.
6.H.1.3 – 7.H.1.3 Use primary and secondary sources to interpret various historical perspectives.
6.C.1.1 Analyze how cultural expressions reflected the values of civilizations, societies and regions (e.g., oral traditions, art, dance, music, literature, and architecture).
7.C.1.2 Explain how cultural expressions (e.g. art, literature, architecture and music) influence modern society.
6.V.1 – 8.V.1 Use the language of visual arts to communicate effectively.
6.V.2 – 8.V.2 Apply creative and critical thinking skills to artistic expression.
6.CX.1.2 – 8.CX.1.2 Analyze art from various historical periods in terms of style, subject matter, and movements.
6.CX.2.2 – 8.CX.2.2 Understand the connections between art and other disciplines.
Burk Uzzle, American, born 1938, Untitled (Coretta Scott King and children, Jesse Jackson, Harry Belafonte in crowd), 1968, gelatin silver print, 11 7/8 x 17 15/16 in. (30.1 x 45.6 cm).Gift of Charles Weinraub and Emily Kass, 2008.3.10.