Photoanalysis of a Family Photograph

This is a photograph of an immigrant family taken in a photographer's studio on the Lower East Side of New York City, most likely in 1923.

Family Photograph


We begin the photoanalysis by asking students for their observations about what is shown. Some questions to start with might be:

  • How many people are in the photograph? How are they are arranged?
  • What kinds of expressions are on their faces?
  • Are they touching? Who is touching?
  • Is there a "center" to the photograph? If so, who is at the center?
  • What types of clothing are they wearing?

If past experience is a guide, some observations will be followed by and mixed with inferences.

What is the difference between an observation and an inference?

  • An inference is a supposition or best guess based on internal evidence. Inferences need to be validated through information in additional sources.
  • A correct inference is one that is plausible, corroborated by other sources (primary and/or secondary) and not contradicted by other known information.
  • An unproved inference is one that is plausible but uncorroborated.
  • An incorrect inference is one that is contradicted by other sources, or simply illogical.

Some examples of correct inferences about this photograph:

  • It appears to be a family unit, given the apparent ages of the group members.
  • The older boy in the middle of the back row seems to occupy a special place in the arrangement.

Some examples of unproved or incorrect inferences about this photograph:

  • They must be unhappy because they are not smiling.
  • The boy on the left who is holding a book must have been a good student.
  • Their good clothing suggests they were a wealthy family.

How do we verify inferences?

To verify some inferences, it is necessary to know contextual information about the times and circumstances of the photograph. Some contextual information may be found through additional research in primary and secondary sources, while other types of information may be difficult or even impossible to obtain.

For example, it is important to know that photographic (and artistic) conventions of the time called for a serious facial expression, and that cultural expectations were that boys, not girls, were to become "scholars" or good students.

Making an assessment about family socio-economic status based on the fact of the photograph and the attire of the subjects requires learning about the context in which family photographs might be taken and a range of other information, such as the cost of obtaining such a photograph, the expectations for attire, the average cost of clothes in relation to average income, etc. It would even be useful to know that business establishments sometimes rented clothing for purposes of photography.

Understanding the context of the photograph

It is important to ask if we know if there was a special occasion for taking this photograph, or if we know the circumstances that led to the taking of the photograph.

Sometimes clues in the photograph can help us. For example, a woman's wedding dress will suggest that the occasion of the photograph was to record a marriage. Sometimes an inscription in the margin or on the rear will be helpful, e.g., "Sally's 5th birthday, 1972."

In the case of the family photograph we are studying, the clues are subtle. We know that it must have been a special occasion, because this was a poor family with little extra funds to spend to go to a photographer'sstudio for such a family portrait.

To understand this photograph, it is important to know that this family is a Sephardic Jewish family that emigrated from Monastir, Macedonia, in 1913. Morris's story also supplies vital information about the context for this photograph.

Reflective Questions

  1. What observations can you make about the photograph of the family you are studying?
  2. What inferences can be drawn from your family photograph?
  3. What will you do to verify your inferences?
  4. What were the circumstances or special occasions your photograph marks?
  5. What information is necessary to understand the historical context of your photograph?