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Picturing the family
Besides being simple mementos family photographs can offer insights into the past. This...
Besides being simple mementos family photographs can offer insights into the past. This unit looks at some of the ways photographs can reveal, and sometimes conceal, important information about the past. It teaches the skills and provides some of the knowledge needed to interpret such pictorial sources.
After studying this unit you should:
- be aware that photographs are shaped by a set of conventions based on ideas and practices which are not immediately apparent;
- be aware that photographs, like other documentary records, are partial and biased;
- be aware that photographs, like other documentary records, require critical analysis and careful interpretation;
- be aware of the importance of contextualisation in analysing photographs.
- Current section: Introduction
- Learning outcomes
- 1 How to avoid damage when handling photographs
- 2 Background history
- 3 The portrait tradition: ideology
- 4 The portrait tradition: methodology
- 4.1 Facial expression
- 4.2 Pose
- 4.3 Characterisation and sexual stereotyping
- 4.4 Groups
- 4.5 Touch
- 4.6 Touch and feeling
- 4.7 Exceptions
- 4.8 Backgrounds and accessories
- 4.9 Lighting
- 4.10 Retouching
- 4.11 Colouring
- 4.12 Key concepts
- 5 Camera culture
- 5.1 Capturing commemorative events
- 5.2 Records of achievement
- 5.3 Prized possessions
- 5.4 Special occasions
- 5.5 Rites of passage
- 5.6 Rites of passage (continued)
- 5.7 Rites of passage (continued)
- 6 Portraits in the open air
- 7 Writing
- Next steps
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A173_1: Picturing the family
Most of us today take photographs for our family albums. The lucky ones among us have also inherited family photographs from the past. These photographs provide another type of record that can offer insights into our family history. But what can they tell us? How can we elicit the information they hold? And how do we analyse or evaluate that information? The purpose of this unit is to suggest how to approach the interpretation of the photographic record.
Please keep referring to your own family photographs as you work through the unit. This will help you assimilate the information and assist in the analysis of your own photographs.
Don't assume that once you have studied a photograph, you will have garnered all the information there is to be found. I am constantly surprised at how much I fail to see when I look at photographs. I have given talks using the same images to different audiences. Frequently somebody seeing an image for the first time will point out details I had not previously registered.
In addition, of course, an insight you discover about an image in your collection may have repercussions for others. So the process is one of continuous reading and reappraisal. Bits of the jigsaw gradually fall into place.
This unit looks at some of the ways photographs can reveal, and sometimes conceal, important information about the past. It will teach the skills and provides some of the knowledge needed to interpret such pictorial sources.
This is an extract from an Open University course which is no longer available to new students. If you found this interesting you could explore more free Visual Art courses or view the range of currently available OU Visual Art courses.
Copyright & revisions
Originally published: Thursday, 17th October 2013
- Creative-Commons: The Open University is proud to release this free course under a Creative Commons licence. However, any third-party materials featured within it are used with permission and are not ours to give away. These materials are not subject to the Creative Commons licence. See terms and conditions. Full details can be found in the Acknowledgements section.
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