Using Visual Primary Sources

A close visual “reading” of photographs and other visual materials is an excellent activity for students of all levels, from K-12 to higher education.  This focuses students on seeing what is there (and not there) and then considering critically what it means — this could be  done in many disciplines, such as history, anthropology, architecture, cultural studies, composition of the image as art, or engineering or business.  This image from University Archives’ Photographic Services Collection provides just one example.

Here is the image zoomed in to the details at the bottom:



And another section:


And finally the full image:


Many details could be discussed based on a close observation of this image, such as: The protesters and what their signs say.  The workers cleaning windows as the protest goes on.  And the construction of the St. Louis Gateway Arch, nearly at its completion, looming in the background.

Beyond examining images as single objects, today’s technological tools allows exploration of images in relation to its geographic place.  One tool used in the humanities is HistoryPin, a free mapping tool. Click here to see this image in relation to a GoogleStreet view of the same location today.

Many options exist to use primary source visual materials with students.  University Archives staff are happy to help you explore and find resources that are a good fit for your students.   Please contact us anytime.


More Resources:

Worksheets for analyzing different types of sources, provided by the Library of Congress:

Teaching with Documents, from the National Archives:

About the author

Miranda Rectenwald is Curator of Local History, Washington University Special Collections. More info.