5 tips for examining historical photos

In the late 19th century, Jacob Riis published How the Other Half Lives, a groundbreaking study focused on the living conditions of New York’s lower east side. As a Danish-American Progressive reformer, Jacob Riis sought to highlight the seriousness of urban poverty and encourage the public to take action. To reach this goal, Riis learned and utilized the new technology of his day, including flash photography.

The photos in How the Other Half Lives are undoubtedly moving (view all of the photos here), and one could argue that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” At the same time, a discerning viewer is still left with a series of important questions that need to be addressed. Take the Riis photo above for example:

If you’re feeling motivated, take out a piece of paper and follow these 5 tips for examining a historical photo.

1. Write down what you see and then draw some possible conclusions.
The good news is that making observations comes naturally to most human beings. However, forcing yourself to intentionally observe details sometimes yields surprisingly insightful conclusions. Don’t rush this step.

2. Ask yourself what details are missing.
A camera lens cannot capture everything a photographer sees, so it is important to remember that photos have limitations. Furthermore, a photographer is giving you a selective, framed version of a real environment. The details missing from a photo may actually be more important than the visible elements, so be sure to think outside of the box (or frame, if you prefer).

3. Learn more about the photographer.
With the internet at our fingertips, this is step is easier than ever. In this instance, we know that Jacob Riis was a 19th century social reformer, Danish immigrant and journalist. How would these attributes influence the photos that he took? One should also consider any obvious biases the photographer might have. Some brief research into the works of Jacob Riis make it clear that his attitudes toward certain immigrant groups influence the photos he took, as well as the solutions he proposed.

4. Consider the artistic angle.
Jacob Riis was an adult male of average height, but the angle of this photo clearly originates below the child thread picker. Why would Riis shoot the photo this way?

5. View the photo from different social vantage points.
It may be hard to believe, but everyone doesn’t see things the way that you do. Try to imagine how you might respond to this photo if you were a first generation immigrant, instead of a third generation American – or how you would view this photo as an affluent suburbian, instead of a lower-middle class worker. Social vantage points are important, as the photographer is often trying to reach a particular demographic with potent message. This was certainly true in the case of Jacob Riis.

A more comprehensive approach to analyzing historical photos can be found here.

This post is in no way comprehensive, so please include additional tips or examples in the comments section below.


Add yours
  1. 1
    Amna Adrees

    There are a few things that I would like to include in this post. First of all, in the reading, I believe it said that Riis was not an artistic person and his compositions were not very intricate, but rather very simple. I disagree with this statement because many of the photos that Riis took include artistic compositional rules such as the rule of thirds, emphasis and contrast, and different line angles and shape to draw attention to certain part(s) of the photograph.

    Also, I wanted to include another tip for analyzing historical photos which would be to consider the context of the photo. What time period is it from? Where was the photo taken? Who or what is the photo of? (This is really just an extension of “ask yourself what details are missing.)

    Finally I had a question or two about Riis and his work. Was anyone besides Roosevelt inspired by Riis’ work? If so,how and what actions did he or she take to alleviate the conditions that Riis highlighted in his photography?

  2. 2
    Noah Rodammer

    There are many compelling reasons for why pictures could be worth one-thousand words. Pictures definitely pull at the heartstrings more than words do, and words about children who are homeless are much less effective compared to pictures of homeless children. Pictures also make events a reality, when words can be written in such a way that doubt is sparked in an audience member’s mind. Also, pictures are supposed to leave little to the imagination, as one is supposed to be able to see everything from the lens of a camera. This reading, however, forces one to think differently.

    Before I read the section, I didn’t question pictures and took them for face value. For the most part, I still don’t take the time to analyze a picture, but occasionally, in the event of an important picture such as one on a DBQ, I have noticed things such as the picture taker’s intent and motives, the left out details, and the artistic details of the photograph.

    I could classify Riis as either a complex or a simple photographer. I believe the story mentioned that Riis would sometimes move people around for a different effect in his pictures, making him more complex. In conjunction with that, he had a very deep meaning to his images. However, his images had one basic point to them; the lower class is in trouble and needs help. Sure, he would introduce some metaphors, like in one of his photographs which depicts a dressed up child symbolizing the hope of a new generation, but it all had the same basic message.

    If nothing else, this reading has taught me to at least notice little things about pictures and to not just take them for face value. I may not need to do that always, but it is definitely a good habit to get in to.

  3. 3
    Meredith Figgatt

    Jacob Riis was born into a middle-class family of the Scandinavian countryside. He joined the millions of immigrants that sought opportunity in America. He worked various odd jobs for income, but failed to find success or satisfaction. At points his situation became desperate and he was forced to beg for food and contemplated suicide. Finally, he received a reporting job with the New York Tribune and outlined the depths of poverty on a day to day basis. However, he was frustrated that his work failed to inspire action among his wealthier readers, so he decided to create a book. In order to gain the most response from his readers, Riis decided to include pictures in his work. This way, the viewers could hardly ignore what he saw as unacceptable poverty in society.

    When Riis first began his job as a photographer, he was not aware of the more complicated aspects of the camera. However, he sought to learn more about the device with other amateur photographers. Eventually, he was able to pick up his own style of photography. For example, he photographed his subjects at their level, so it would not seem as though he were above them. In addition, his photographs reflected how he felt about poverty. So, he would include the photographs where his subjects looked most unhappy in his work. Therefore, Jacob Riis was a biased photographer. For better or worse, (most would say that it was for better), his work did inspire action against poverty, (shown by people like Theodore Roosevelt).

    But what can we take away from all of this? On one hand, it shows that when someone is passionate about something, they can inspire action in others, (which, is comforting in some situations and scary in others). However, this reading also proves that there is bias within everything that we see and everything that we do. The camera was famous for portraying the scene exactly as it was in real life. However, when the photographer plants his subjects in certain positions and chooses from a variety of shots, is this really true? Therefore, I consider tip number 5 most important; “View the photo from different social vantage points.” Although most people would consider Jacob Riis’ composition moral and ‘for a good cause,’ that doesn’t mean that viewing the scene from his lens only is okay. We must view the situation in its entirety in order for it to be correct, (and factual).

  4. 4
    Victoria O'Leary

    I think that these tips really helped me think about aspects of historical photographs that I’ve never previously considered. That being said, without having read Amna’s, Noah’s, or Meredith’s comments, the first things I notice are the pile of clothes, the bruise on the boy’s eye, the man directly behind the boy without a beard, and the man on the far left appears to be a little bit shorter.
    I want to assume that these men are all members f the same family, if possibly distant. The older men believe that they have deserved a break for finishing their work early, and are likely drinking. The young boy might have been abused by these men or been beaten for being an immigrant in the nativist era. He has not yet finished all of his work and, thus, is still working while the others are taking a break. These jobs were some of the only work that immigrants in the late 1800’s could get. The better dressed man to the left of the picture could be getting fitted for clothing, as he is slightly better dressed. I would imagine the house smelled like dust, body odor, and something rancid. It appears to be daytime, but the men aren’t sweating so likely winter or late fall, maybe early spring. The only reason I assume that these are indeed immigrants is because Jacob Riis often took pictures of these social groups, especially for How the Other Half Lives.
    I believe that he was trying to emphasize the problems associated with child labor in the United States by picking this vantage point. The only thing I don’t get a clear view of is the actual walls and floors themselves because they’re blocked by human bodies and clothing. This seems accurate enough to me and shows how crammed and uncomfortable living in such a place would be.

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