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ARCHIVED - Framing Canada:
A Photographic Memory

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Educational Resources

Decoding Photographs

Photograph of a box camera with a two-tone rose faceplate and a matching leatherette exterior
Kodak Beau Brownie camera, Artifact No. 1988.0445
ca. 1930 - 1933
Courtesy of the Canada Science and Technology Museum
11330
Source

Ideas: Representation and Interpretation

Photographs are a useful primary source of information and can teach us a great deal about historical events. A photograph is a representation of something real; at the same time, it is something created by the photographer. It is never a neutral representation. A photograph reflects the codes, values, beliefs and culture of the photographer, as well as time during which it was created. The meaning we find in a photograph is similarly influenced by our culture, values and beliefs. When using a photograph for historical research, the viewer must take an active role in its interpretation. This is a decoding, rather than a passive act of looking.

Decoding the Photograph: Questions to Ask

To decode a photograph, it is useful to follow a methodical process consisting of four stages: describing, analyzing, interpreting and evaluating.

Describing
In describing the photograph, you must first make note of as much essential, factual information as is available. Does the photograph have a title? Who is the photographer? When and where was the photograph taken? Look at the subject matter and describe it as clearly as you can. Are there people in the photograph? Is it a landscape? Does it show the country or the city? List as many facts as you can. Finally, look at the elements of design: colour, line, shape, value, form, space and texture. How are these used in the photograph?

Analyzing
The photographer makes certain decisions about how the photograph will be composed, and about when and where it will be taken. In analyzing the photograph, look at some of these decisions and consider why they were made. First, what can you learn from the clues in the photo? What draws your eye immediately? Also, look closely at other perhaps less significant, details. What information can they give you?

If there are people in the photograph, what kind of clothes are they wearing? How old do the people appear to be? What do you think the relationships between the people are? What do facial expressions and body language suggest?

What is going on in the background? Do you see any writing in the photo (signs, or posters, for example)? Are there recognizable buildings or landmarks? What time of day does it seem to be? Think about overall mood or feeling. Finally, how do the various elements work together?

Interpreting
In interpreting the photograph, use the information that you have discovered through your description and analysis to draw conclusions about the photograph. Can you now say exactly what is happening in the photograph? What is the photographer trying to say; that is, what is the intent of the photographer? Why was the picture taken at this time? Why did the photographer select this angle?

Consider what is in the picture and what is left out. A photographer uses the boundaries of the photograph as a frame. There is always a conscious decision to focus on some things and leave other things out. How do these decisions affect the meaning?

At this point, you might need to look at outside information. Do some research in order to discover the historical context of the photograph. Was it staged or spontaneous? What was happening in the world at the time? Think about the time period when the photograph was taken. Does the meaning of the photograph change when we look at it now, compared to when it was created? Think critically; do not simply accept the image as a true representation of something that actually happened.

Evaluating
The final stage of your decoding is an evaluation. What do you think about the work? Make a judgment about the value, the significance and the importance of the photograph. Is the photograph useful to you in terms of your historical research? What does it add to your knowledge of the subject? Base this on the earlier information you have gained.

Examples

If you look at some photographs, you can begin to see how these decoding tools might be used. Examine the first photograph, "Mi'kmaq girls in sewing class at the Roman Catholic Shubenacadie Indian Residential School, Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia, 1929." Ask yourself some questions. Where do you think this photograph was taken? What are the girls doing? Look carefully at the lines in the photograph. Where do they converge and what significance does this have? What is a residential school? Why do you think that this photograph was taken, and for whom?

Black and white photograph of a group of girls seated around a large table; a sewing machine table is visible in the foreground
Mi'kmaq girls in sewing class at the Roman Catholic Shubenacadie Indian Residential School
Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia, 1929
Photographer: unknown
PA-185530
Source

Next, take a look at "Immigrant children from Dr. Barnardo's homes at landing stage, Saint John, N.B." Who do you think these children were? Why were they coming to Canada? Look at their clothing. What does this tell you about the time period? Look at the lines in the photograph. Where is your eye drawn? How is this photograph similar to "Mi'kmaq girls in sewing class at the Roman Catholic Shubenacadie Indian Residential School"? What are the differences?

Black and white photograph of a large group of children standing on a wharf
British immigrant children from Dr. Barnardo's homes at landing stage
Saint John, New Brunswick, unknown date
Photographer: Isaac Erb
PA-041785
Source

Examine the photograph "The Leader, the first newspaper in the Territory of Assiniboia, founded by Nicholas Flood Davin in 1883." The photograph was taken in 1885. What does the photograph tell you about Saskatchewan at the time? What can you find out about Canada at the time? Look at the surroundings. What is the landscape like? Why do you think the photographer chose that particular angle to take the picture from? Think about the prominence of the sky and the effect this has on the mood of the photograph.

Sepia photograph of several men standing, two carriages and two horses scattered in front of a building with a western storefront facade
The Leader, the first newspaper in the Territory of Assiniboia, founded by Nicholas Flood Davin in 1883
Regina, Saskatchewan, 1885
Photographer: O.B. Buell
PA-118776
Source

Look closely at the photograph "Rideau Street, north side looking west, Ottawa, Ontario, 1898."

If you have ever been to Ottawa, think of how the city is different today. Think about the buildings, transportation, and the amount of space. What buildings do you see in the photograph? Can you identify any of them? Are any of them still there today? Do you think that this was a posed photograph or a spontaneous one? What time of day do you think this is? Look at the shadows. What kind of action is happening in the photograph? Find an old photograph of your city or town. Compare it with how your city or town looks today.

Black and white photograph of a man in a horse-drawn carriage on an urban street being chased by several dogs
The north side of Rideau Street looking west
Ottawa, Ontario, 1898
Photographer: John Beverley MacLaughlin
C-001585
Source

This photograph in a locket is a daguerreotype of John A. Macdonald. What is a daguerreotype? When do you think that this photograph was taken? Why was it taken? As the photograph is contained within a locket, this is probably a personal, intimate photograph, rather than a public one. To whom do you think the locket may have belonged?

Daguerreotype portrait of Sir John A. Macdonald encased in a round, gold locket
Sir John A. Macdonald
Unknown location, unknown date
Photographer: unknown
PA-121571
Source

The photograph, "Quebec Harbour Commission's lifting barge, June, July and August 1877," shows a portion of the barge as it appeared with the net of anchors and chains raised. What would a barge like this have been used for? Look at the details of the boat. What effect does the close-up of the anchors and chains have? What other details do you see in the photograph? Look carefully at the people on the barge and at the building in the background.

Sepia photograph of a lifting barge with many men looking onward at a large pile of chains and anchors
Lifting barge of the Québec Harbour Commission with anchors and chains raised in June, July and August 1877
Québec, Quebec, 1877
Photographer: D.A. McLaughlin
C-003999
Source

Look at the photograph, "Bobby Leach and his barrel after his perilous trip over Niagara Falls, 25th July, 1911." Where do you think that this photograph was taken? Is it a studio shot or was it taken on location? What effect does the background have on the feeling of the photograph? Why is Leach posed as he is? What can you find out about this event? What would the contemporary newspapers have reported about the event?

Black and white photograph of a man sitting on a metal bullet-shaped barrel
Bobby Leach and his barrel after his perilous trip over Niagara Falls
Niagara Falls, Ontario, July 25, 1911
Photographer: unknown
C-014062
Source

Having studied these examples, you now have some tools that will assist you with in using photographs as primary sources. Remember to look carefully and to ask questions!

Resources: Websites of Interest

Framing Canada: A Photographic Memory. A virtual exhibition and searchable database of digitized photographs. Library and Archives Canada.
www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/framingcanada/index-e.html
(accessed March 9, 2011)

For Teachers

On Reading Photos

Tête à Tête: Portraits by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Teacher Resource Materials. Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.
www.npg.si.edu/exh/cb/c-b.pdf
(accessed March 9, 2011).

History of Photography

The American Museum of Photography.
www.photography-museum.com/
(accessed March 9, 2011).

Greenspun, Philip. History of Photography Timeline. Photo.net.
www.photo.net/history/timeline
(accessed March 9, 2011).

Leggat, Robert. A History of Photography: from Its Beginnings till the 1920s.
www.rleggat.com/photohistory/
(accessed March 9, 2011).

For Students

On Reading Photos

McDowell, Dan. Photographs: A Process Guide for Students. Learn NC: The North Carolina Teachers' Network.
www.learnnc.org/articles/photo-process
(accessed March 9, 2011).

Thibault, Melissa, and David Walbert. Reading Photographs. Learn NC: The North Carolina Teachers' Network.
www.learnnc.org/articles/vlphoto0602-1
(accessed March 9, 2011).

On the Specific Photographs


"Mi'kmaq girls in sewing class at the Roman Catholic Shubenacadie Indian Residential School, Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia, 1929"

Fisher, Amy, and Deborah Lee. Native Residential Schools in Canada: A Selected Bibliography. Library and Archives Canada.
www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/native-residential/index-e.html
(accessed March 9, 2011).

Mi'kmaq Portraits Collection. Nova Scotia Museum.
http://museum.gov.ns.ca/mikmaq/
(accessed March 9, 2011).

Paul, Daniel N. Twentieth-Century Education for Native Americans: Residential Schools.
www.danielnpaul.com/IndianResidentialSchools.html
(accessed March 9, 2011).


"Immigrant children from Dr. Barnardo's homes at landing stage, Saint John, N.B"

Barnardo's: History.
www.barnardos.org.uk/who_we_are/history.htm
(accessed March 9, 2011).

Thomas John Barnardo ('the doctor'). Infed.
www.infed.org/thinkers/barnardo.htm
(accessed March 9, 2011).


"The Leader, the first newspaper in the Territory of Assiniboia, founded by Nicholas Flood Davin in 1883"

"Davin, Nicholas Flood". The Canadian Encyclopedia.
www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/index.cfm?PgNm=TCE
(accessed March 9, 2011).


"John A. Macdonald"

"Sir John A. Macdonald". Canada History.com
www.canadahistory.com/sections/Politics/pm/johnmacdonald.htm
(accessed March 9, 2011).

"Sir John A. Macdonald". ARCHIVED - Canadian Confederation. Library and Archives Canada.
www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/confederation/023001-4000.46-e.html
(accessed March 9, 2011).


"Quebec Harbour Commission's lifting barge, June, July and August 1877"

Québec Port Authority. Info Source.
www.infosource.gc.ca/inst/qbc/fed01_e.asp
(accessed March 9, 2011).


"Bobby Leach and his barrel after his perilous trip over Niagara Falls, 25th July, 1911"

Dare Devils: Bobby Leach. Info Niagara.
www.infoniagara.com/niagaradaredevils/bobbyleach.aspx
(accessed March 9, 2011).

Daredevils of Niagara Falls. Niagara Falls Live.
www.niagarafallslive.com/daredevils_of_niagara_falls.htm
(accessed March 9, 2011).

Bobby Leach. Niagara Falls Public Library.
www.nflibrary.ca/ForAdults/LocalHistoryMaterials/
StuntersDaredevils/tabid/135/Default.aspx

(accessed March 9, 2011).