How to Look at a Photograph

   about us      contact us     visual history      reading history      multicultural quizzes      multicultural web resources      teacher feature index


The photographs above and below did not have any information on them when we bought them from eBay. Everything we know about them comes from the photographs themselves.


Formal Portraits

In the past many people did not own cameras. They did not have snapshots of their lives and special occasions. But they wanted to record their stories, too. So they went to a studio photographer for a formal portrait. Older studio photographs often have special backdrops, curtains painted with different kinds of scenes. A person sitting in front of the backdrop might look like they were sitting in a beautiful garden, or in a fancy room, or in front of a window. When most people went to have their photograph taken, they wanted to look nice for the camera, so they put on their best clothes. They wanted to tell the story that they were happy, healthy, and proud. Other people wanted to record what they did for a living, so they wore their work clothes or uniforms.

Many people in older portraits look very serious. One reason is that they had to sit very still or the photograph would be blurry. But it was also because having their picture taken was serious business. It wasn't like snapshots today.Before most people had cameras, a person might get only one or two photographs taken in a lifetime! Today people still go to studios to get special pictures taken. And they still put on their best clothes and their best faces for the camera.

There are other kinds of formal portraits, taken outside a studo. Class photos are formal portraits, even though they're usually taken at school. And formal portraits are often taken of sports teams or employees of a company.

Back to "How to Look at a Photograph"  
OneHistory Home