Putting a Face on History with Photographs

Use the Library of Congress to draw your students into history through photographs.

By Erin Bailey

antique camera

The soldier wore his uniform with obvious pride—the brass buttons gleaming, the creases in his pants sharp. The barrel of his rifle had been polished until it glowed softly. However, these weren’t the first details I noticed about him. No, the first thing I noticed was that his face was still soft with youth. His too-large ears jutted out beneath his hat, and his wide eyes revealed the uncertainty in his heart. He was a Union soldier headed to war, but he was still just a boy.

Primary sources are one of the best ways to study history, and photographs provide young learners with a particularly deep connection to history and the people in it. Today’s students are accustomed to visual images to help them piece together the story. The Library of Congress is a top-notch resource when you want to put a face on the past. Several collections that I recommend are detailed below. The image reproduction numbers are included so that you can search for them in the library’s online catalog.

Photographs from the Civil War

With the advent of photography in the first part of the Nineteenth century, many individuals documented the Civil War in this new medium. The Library of Congress has a vast collection of daguerreotypes, tintypes, and glass negative images. Have your students compare the images in various collections to find similarities in mood, as well as subject matter.

Alexander Gardner worked under Mathew Brady and was assigned to photograph the Army of the Potomac from 1861-1862. After the Civil War, he published a Photographic Sketchbook from the war. In the introduction, he writes, “Verbal representations of such places, or scenes, may or may not have the merit of accuracy; but photographic presentments of them will be accepted by posterity with an undoubting faith.” Each picture is accompanied by a detailed description that creates context. I recommend pages 58, 74, 84, and 90.

The Library of Congress has digitized nearly 8500 glass negative images from the war. There are battle scenes and armaments, as well as photographs of generals and soldiers. A few that caught my attention include:

It was quite common for a soldier to have his picture taken just before he left for battle. Sometimes the soldier posed with a brother or his family, but usually it was him alone in his uniform. Most of these individuals are identified only by the state of their regiment. Pictures like those in the Liljenquist Collection are often the only record of the person.

Chronicling Native Americans

As you study Native Americans, it is helpful for learners to have actual photographs like those included in the Curtis Collection to dispel stereotypes. These images capture the pride, way of life, and traditions of Native American groups. Let your class explore the photographs suggested below to see how Native Americans dressed, where they lived, the forms of transportation they used, and the work they performed:

Horrors of the Industrial Revolution

In the early 1900s, child labor became a horrific by-product of the American Industrial Revolution. The National Child Labor Committee Collection documents the deplorable working and living conditions for the youngest laborers. Your young historians will connect with the children pictured, some of whom are not even school-aged. All of the images are heart breaking, but some of the most descriptive ones are listed below:

Of course, this is only a sampling of the visual images that the Library of Congress has to offer. Posters, documentary drawings, cartoons, and graphic art are also available online. Some events are difficult for children to imagine—using photographs can help. For more ideas, check out some of these lessons from Lesson Planet.

Lesson Ideas:

The History of Photography

In this article from 2010, the author suggests ways to use photographs to learn about historical events. She includes a brief history of this medium and ways to use it in your curriculum.

Photographic Memories

Although designed for middle school, this lesson can be adapted to reach a wider range of learners. After studying photographs, learners determine how they are used to record history, influence opinion, and tell a story. The lesson concludes with pupils writing an essay about a photograph.

Read All About It!

Appropriate for grades 3-8, this lesson explores the photography of Dorothea Lange during the 1930s and 1940s. Learners discuss the impact of the pictures and then write a news article about one of the photos.