Monday, October 6, 2014

More Finds at the Local Antique Shop: Reading Photographs

Photographs without descriptions require us to more carefully examine what is in front of us than we ordinarily might. While text and narrative can help us better understand an image, lack of text can help us figure it out for ourselves.

When you go to a museum, do you run up and read the label copy or do you first examine the object and see what you can figure out on your own? I am aware that the procedure of viewing that I choose may change my whole experience. Do I want the expert to tell me what to see? Or, do I want to take my time to decipher an item and then verify it with what the label copy tells me?  If I have a limited time at a museum, I'll read the label copy first. If I can afford the time, I prefer the puzzle. Both ways help me learn. Both allow me to connect information I am given to what I already know, but one way is much more passive than the other.

Why does this matter?

As an educator, it matters very much for my teaching,

Look at this image I found last week at an antique shop. What can YOU tell ME about it?

My students tend to tell me things such as: That woman lived a long time ago or that woman is wealthy. Fine. But we can do better. Let's reevaluate. Let's teach them to read an image. 

"Wait a minute! How do you know that?" They will look again and I will say, "Tell me something simpler about this image, such as it's black and white. Is that one clue that this woman lived a long time ago? How do you know she's wealthy?"

A young person might say, "She is wearing fancy clothes and jewelry. That tells us she has some money. And we don't wear clothes like that now. That is another way we know this picture is old."

"Okay, what else? Do you think a photographer took this? Why or why not? Do you think that everyone could have afforded a photographer back then? Let's look more closely."

The image is mounted in a cardboard folio. The photograph is covered with a thin tissue and there is a ghost image on the other side. Most young people would not think about this at all if I didn't point it out. The ink from the photograph is acidic and creating the shadow on the other side. When I point things like this out to students, they tend to start thinking about their family's own photo collections. The "life" of the photograph becomes as important as the subject. How can we take better care of our things? What does preservation mean?

When students learn to "read" a photograph, it opens new worlds of exploration. Notice the glasses on this lady below. Notice the oval frame. Notice her dress and tie. Notice that this image is not just black and white, but it's also browning. Notice this woman isn't smiling. "Ms. Mannon, they never smile in old pictures! They always look so angry!" Why?

I often hear that kids are not curious about the past and they are not interested in their family's heirlooms. Is this because we hand kids information that they cannot relate to their own lives and their own knowledge? Is this also because we don't encourage them to ask questions? Do we not teach them how to be curious and how to "read" a photograph or an item? I find that kids do not even know what questions a photograph can pose; what mysteries does it hold? Who cares about this black and white image?

Museums and archives can do the same thing that we do in a classroom by re-writing label copy to engage a younger generation. (Local historical societies, this is a good way for you especially to re-think your displays.)

Teach kids to ask:
What do you see? Is this something you would see today?

Teach kids to wonder:
Why does it look this way? Why are these people not smiling? Why is this image black and white? Why are these people dressed this way? Where are these people? Who are these people?

Teach kids to be curious:
Where and how can I find out more? Is it possible to figure out who these people are?

When we read a photograph, we may begin to see bits of ourselves in the faces that peer at us. We may see families like our own and people with hopes and dreams similar to ours. "Reading" images not only makes us smarter and more curious, it also makes us more empathetic. Images have the capacity for helping us to dig deeper into ourselves, to define who we are and how those who built history helped form who we are and what society is today. And I find that once we start encouraging them to "read", the curiosity won't stop. Keep providing more materials so those questions keep coming.

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