Photograph Interpretation

Please try our tutorial on Describing Images by Paul Bierman, UVM Faculty

When viewing photos, ask yourself questions about these topics:
  • Land Use

    (How did people live? What part of the land were people using? Where were they farming? What were they doing?)
  • Geology

    (What does the surface of the landscape look like? Are there obvious surface processes such as landslides or erosion? Is the stream channel braided or meandering? Where is the river cutting?)
  • Biology

    (What plants are in the photo? What sort of wildlife can be seen or inferred?)
  • Ecology

    (What sort of patterns can be seen in living and non-living things seen in the photos? Are the plant communities the same in the historic and current photos? Are species arranged in the same way as we see them today?)
  • History

    (How did people live? What was going on in state (national or world) history at the time this photo was taken? What sort of technology is evident? What do the buildings look like?)
  • Geography

    (How can we relate how people are living with the environment in which they live? How is the natural environment confining or determining the location of various human activities in the photo? What do the cultural materials or raw materials (bricks stones, lumber) say about the landscape from which they come? How are people using those materials?)
  • Context

    (Why was this photo taken? What particular feature was the photographer emphasizing? What do you know about the photographer?)

Looking at photos

. Enjoy the subject of the photo that draws your eye toward the center, but also be sure to pay attention to other parts of the photo. Scan the edges carefully. Ask yourself questions about what you're seeing. As you look through more and more photos, begin to ask yourself about trends you're seeing in the photos. Where were people living? How were they using the land? Where was the land that people were using? What are the connections between land use and the underlying geologic features?

Landscapes in context.

Understanding the context in which photos or other historical material were created is critical in understanding what it says about history. Often we are deprived of more information about the photos that we have in our collection, forced to interpret them at face value. The more you can learn about the context in which the photo was taken, the richer your understanding of that photo and that time period.

In looking at the photos in a landscape context, we can look for larger trends in meaning in the photos. Often photos have an intended subject such as a house or bridge, barn, family, event etc. but also intentionally or unintentionally capture images of the landscapes beyond. By focusing on changes in the landscape seen in the photos, we are taking them out of the context in which they were photographed (e.g. commemorating that barn-raising or new road) and using them as examples of landscape-level changes. The proud, kept fields that covered 80 percent of the Vermont landscape in the 1850s are seen clearly in all sorts of photos that undoubtedly were taken for other purposes. In this sense we get a sneak peek into how things were without bias. On the other hand, many photos were meticulously framed by the photographer to capture and portray specific facets of the landscape, perhaps exaggerating certain things and leaving out others. It is impossible to understand exactly what the photographer was hoping to show in a certain photo. Look for patterns across many photos to gain a sense of what the landscape looked like and how its changed over time.

Why was the photo taken?

Photos are inherently biased in the sense that they include some things and leave others out. This gives us an incomplete record of the landscapes of Vermont. Early photographers just as you and I, often photographed what is special and out of the ordinary rather than the commonplace. This suggests that we must begin by asking ourselves why a photo was taken. Sometimes you gain insight into this by looking through several photos of that collection. For example, as you see more and more stereoviews of Vermont, you begin to get a sense that they're biased towards unusual and spectacular Vermont scenes, while other photos are often focused on the buildings and built environment, ignoring more remote areas. In this sense photos can deceive us. For example, as we see more and more photos of buildings in town, we can be lulled into thinking that town life was the reality of the "common Vermonter" while the situation may have been much more farm and field centered and yet fewer photos of that part of life may have been taken.. Nevertheless photo documentation does offer insight into the natural and cultural history of the Vermont landscape. It allows us to "see" how things were and how they've changed.

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