What does it mean to look at a photograph? Photographs capture the image of a moment in time and space while also existing as a flat, cropped, and composed print. In this form, a photograph becomes a multifaceted art object that can inspire many meanings. When approaching a photograph in a gallery, you can start to unlock its attributes with three strategies for careful looking: description, formal analysis, and reflection.
We will look at Alexander Gardner’s Lincoln on Battlefield of Antietam, Maryland, shown below, and explore how careful looking can deepen understanding. We'll start by describing the scene preserved by the camera, then analyze the formal elements of the image’s composition, and finally reflect on the emotions and interpretations that can be read from the photograph’s collective qualities.
Describe what you see
Describing an image is a useful technique for looking closely at the image and absorbing its details. Try to remain as objective as possible, discussing what can be seen without drawing conclusions about the photograph's meaning. For instance, when looking at Lincoln on Battlefield of Antietam, Maryland, it would be appropriate to say, "The tall man in the middle is wearing a black suit," but it would be inappropriate to say, "The tall man in the middle is dressed as if going to a funeral." This sort of subjective comment should be reserved for the reflection step.
A description can begin anywhere, but it is generally easiest to begin by discussing the subject matter. For example, a description of this image might begin with the basic statement, "In this monochromatic image, three men stand in front of a tent." Once you have stated the subject matter, simply elaborate on what you can see:
"The man in the middle is the tallest and is posed with his hands down at his sides, wearing a formal black suit with a bowtie and a tall stovepipe hat. The man to the left is wearing a rumpled dark suit and a bowler hat. The man to the right is dressed in a military uniform with bright buttons and epaulets. The tent is pitched on a grassy clearing with trees in the background."
Use formal analysis to identify characteristics
After looking carefully at an image and describing it objectively, the next step is formal analysis. Formal analysis relies upon the elements of composition (e.g., line, color, texture, balance, proportion, etc.). A good place to start is deciding which elements are most strongly represented. In the photograph of Lincoln, the very distinct lines and geometric shapes are immediately apparent. Upon closer inspection, it is clear that these lines and shapes function to frame and to move the viewer's eye toward the central subject, President Lincoln. For instance, note the way that all of the lines in the image draw the eye toward the figure of the president. The tent forms an inverted "V" shape directly behind Lincoln while the vertical tent post and tree trunk in the background further elongate Lincoln's already tall figure, clearly emphasizing Lincoln's figure in the composition.
There are other strongly represented elements as well. Consider the use of contrast in this image: There is a stark contrast between the white of Lincoln's shirt and his black suit, which further draws our attention toward the president's face. There is also a sense of balance, with the figures standing to either side of the president in similar poses like mirror images.
Reflect on meaning
This final step should focus on the emotions and interpretations that an image evokes for the viewer. Different viewers will react to the same image in different ways, so there are no wrong responses. Knowing the historical context of an image can be very important for constructing reflective responses. For this image, it is important to know that the Battle of Antietam was one of the most bloody and brutal battles of the Civil War. Appropriate comments for this type of analysis might include the following:
"The tone of Lincoln on Battlefield of Antietam, Maryland, seems very bleak. The somber facial expressions of the men, coupled with the barren grass and sparse trees, give an overall impression of death and dying. There is also a sense of loneliness about the figure of President Lincoln. Although standing next to two men, he seems isolated. He is unresponsive to the camera; rather than making eye contact, he stares distantly off into space, increasing the sense of isolation."
Additionally, you may notice the blurriness of Lincoln’s face in this image. Observations like this can inspire further research, which may lead to more in-depth explorations of photographic processes and the technical issues photographers face while creating images.
Each step of visual analysis provides additional insight into Alexander Gardner’s Lincoln on Battlefield of Antietam, Maryland. After spending time with a photograph and exploring your responses to its qualities, you may find new and significant meanings that are less apparent at first glance. The steps of description, formal analysis, and reflection can also be applied to any work of art, and they can help you begin to think critically and analytically about what you see.
Adapted from Exploring Photographs: A Curriculum for Middle and High School Teachers, a curricular publication of the Education Department at the J. Paul Getty Museum, 2007.