Some photographers pose their subjects, others capture candid images of people. Sometimes, it can be hard to tell the difference.

Photography and Public Image

Today, the identity of a notable figure or celebrity may be largely crafted through photographic images.

Photography as Witness

Photographs of major historic events often help define collective memory or provide indisputable evidence of moments in history.

Sets, Stories, and Situations

Throughout the history of the medium, photographers have staged images to evoke or reference literature, films, or real events.

The Photographic Record

Since its inception, photography has helped build a collective archive of human experience.

Photography has often been perceived as an objective, and therefore unbiased, medium for capturing and preserving historical moments. Yet the choices made by a photographer—including how the image is composed, what is left in or out of the shot, and how it may be manipulated after it is taken—necessarily impacts how we perceive the image. It also raises critical questions about how willingly we accept any one photograph as the definitive truth.

Photographs can bear witness to a definitive moment in history or even serve as a catalyst for change. They can foster sympathy and awareness or, alternatively, offer critical commentary on an historical figure or event. The photographers discussed here aim to wordlessly capture the essence of events they witnessed—though the question of accuracy is always up for debate.

To explore more, click on each artwork thumbnail, then click again on the larger image that appears in the box above.

Dorothea Lange, Dorothea Lange: Farm Security Administration Photographs, 1935–1939 (Glencoe, Ill.: Text-Fiche Press, 1980), 31

The worst economic collapse in the history of the modern industrial world, triggered by the crash of the stock market on October 29, 1929, a day that came to be known as “Black Tuesday.” It spread from the United States to the rest of the world, lasting from the end of 1929 until the early 1940s. With banks failing and businesses closing, more than 15 million Americans (one-quarter of the workforce) became unemployed.

One who uses a camera or other means to produce photographs.

An image, especially a positive print, recorded by exposing a photosensitive surface to light, especially in a camera.

The materials used to create a work of art, and the categorization of art based on the materials used (for example, painting [or more specifically, watercolor], drawing, sculpture).

The method by which information is included or excluded from a photograph. A photographer frames an image when he or she points a camera at a subject.

In photography, editing, typically by removing the outer edges of the image. This process may happen in the darkroom or on a computer.

The arrangement of the individual elements within a work of art so as to form a unified whole; also used to refer to a work of art, music, or literature, or its structure or organization.

To request, or the request for, the production of a work of art.

Questions & Activities

  1. Debating Gardner

    Reflect. Does knowing that Gardner staged this photograph make it less valuable as a document of the Civil War? Why or why not?

    Write. In a one- or two-page essay, write a response in which you argue your views on this subject.

  2. A Closer Look at Migrant Mother

    Explore. Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother is one of the most iconic images of the Great Depression. Go to The Library of Congress website and look at the five images Lange took of this family.

    Reflect. Do you think the image that was widely published was the most successful choice? Why or why not? Which of the images would you have chosen? Consider the framing, cropping, angle, and composition of the image. Summarize your thoughts in a one-page essay.

  3. Art or Propaganda?

    Commissioned by the federal government, photographs like Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California taken by FSA photographers often present compelling and poignant images of poverty-stricken people and places. Created to help justify and document federal aid, the enormous archive has sometimes been viewed as propagandistic. About this issue, Lange stated,

    “Everything is propaganda for what you believe in, actually, isn’t it? I don’t see that it could be otherwise. The harder and the more deeply you believe in anything, the more in a sense you’re a propagandist. Conviction, propaganda, faith. I don’t know, I never have been able to come to the conclusion that that’s a bad word.”1

    Reflect. Write a response essay to Lange’s statement. Conduct research on propaganda, citing one example you consider “good” propaganda and one example you consider “bad” propaganda. Argue your convictions.

  4. Words vs. Images

    Explore and Compare. Read reporter Donatella Lorch’s New York Times article about a particularly horrific episode during the Rwandan genocide. Compare Lorch’s written account to the photographs by Gilles Peress.

    Reflect. When it comes to capturing such an atrocity, consider whether text or images have a more powerful impact. Which had a greater affect on you? Why? Write your ideas in a one- or two-page essay.