When investigating the past, a historian often uses art, artiacts, and other clues in order to understand how people lived, worked, and how they may have seen the world around them. With the invention of photography, historians were able to have a seemingly accurate visual record of the people, places, and events of the past.
Students will have the opportunity to study and observe historic images
to learn about the past.
Students will combine skills of direct observation and imagination to
write a biography based on a photographic portrait.
One "Biography" kit, which may be checked out from the California
Museum of Photography. The kit contains 35 photographic portraits
dating from the 1880s to the 1930s. A variety of photographic processes
are represented, including many of those covered in Activity 4. (Note: If the CMP is not within driving distance, you may wish to start your own "collection" of historic images. Old, inexpensive photographs are in abundant supply at garage sales, thrift stores, and antique shops. Or, you can photocopy images from books.)
Paper and pencils
Before beginning individual projects, teacher should model this activity as a group. Select one of the portraits from the kit, preferably a larger sized example (or make a photocopied enlargement of one portrait). Explain to the class that this is a photograph that was made many years ago.
Does anyone know what we call a picture of a person? Right! We call it a portrait. We can learn something about a person by looking at their portrait, can't we? What clues does this portrait give us about this person? (Teacher should elicit ideas and write students' responses on the board.)
We can learn many things from a photograph, but there are some things that a photograph alone cannot tell us. A photograph only tells part of a story.
Does anyone know what a biography is? A biography is a story about a person's life. We are going to write a biography about the person in this photograph. We want to tell as much about this person's life as possible; some information we can get from the photograph, but sometimes we will have to use our imagination to fill in the missing pieces. (Again, teacher elicits ideas and writes responses on the board.)
What is the person's name? Age?
Does he/she have any family? Friends? Is anyone else in the photograph? Who?
Where does he/she live?
What is the person's life like? Does he/she have a job? Go to school?
What kinds of hobbies does the person have?
How does the person feel about his/her photograph?
Once the class has constructed a list of "facts" about the person, the teacher should use this information to write a short biographic narrative on the board (the class can do this together).
Ask students to get out a piece of paper and a pencil. Give each student one portrait from the "Biography" kit. Students should study the portraits carefully, then write a biography for the person in the photograph. Notice that some of the portraits will feature several people; encourage students to focus on one person in the group.
Students can create biographies by working in pairs or small groups.
Have 2 students (or 2 groups) write about the same photograph. This can be accomplished by photocopying the portrait, or having them write at different times. Compare and contrast their observations and interpretations.
This "Biography" activity may also be adapted to an "Autobiography" exercise. Students will pretend that they are the person in the portrait, and write a first-person autobiography.
Students can write their own autobiographies. Have students bring in photographs of themselves, and/or make new self-portraits in class. Use cameras or other media!
- Biography: A story about a person's life, written by another person.
- Autobiography: The story of a person's life, written by that person.
- Portrait: An image of a person. Portraits can be paintings, photographs, sculptures, or other kinds of images.
- Self portrait: A portrait that a person makes of him/herself.