Art History Reader: How to Read a Photograph (As Art)

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Robert Frank, Trolley - New Orleans, 1955, Gelatin silver print, 8 5/8 x 13 1/16 in., The Metropolitan Museum of Art.


From Rembrandt to Frida Kahlo, artists have long found inspiration in the mirror. While their painted selfies may have taken a bit longer to create, they are not so different from what we post on Instagram. Whether it's to share your experiences or please the algorithm, we continue this trend of photographing ourselves for our followers. Our technology allows us to do this through the grueling work of clicking a button, not to mention using apps to edit and perfect this version of us. The amount of likes then confirms that we have shared a significant picture with the world, as we sit back and wait for verification from the Pulitzer or TIME committees. However, contrary to social media’s endorsements, “liking” a photograph isn’t the same as critically reading a photograph. 

There is more to a photograph than simply looking at it. Since we are so inundated with images--from the news, social media, and memes--slowing down, practicing visual literacy, and comprehending what we see is essential. Here are a few easy steps to start to more critically read and analyze photographs. 


  1. Do a formal analysis. 

Just like checking an influencer’s photos for Photoshop mistakes, slow down and look at every nook and cranny of the photograph. Try to see each item and element individually without creating any expectations or stories. List the items, people, words, indications of location, and the elements of art in the image. Photographs are a record of light, bouncing, reflecting, and being absorbed by different surfaces. Acknowledge the light and colors that are visible.

Consider the example of Robert Frank’s Trolley, seen above. There are strong lines that create a grid to frame the shapes of the subjects. The light is diffused likely from the clouded sky creating bouncing reflections on the trolley siding. Photographs that have many aspects to formally analyze are:


  1. Examine the composition.

After looking at the individual elements, see the image as a whole. Be aware of how your eyes move through the photograph, observing if there are places for pause. Consider the overall tone of the work, whether there is more complexity or harmony in the shapes, patterns, light, color, and contrast. Ask yourself whether these moments create a sense of balance or instability. Again, practice looking rather than creating assumptions. 

The composition of Trolley is very formal and symmetrically balanced by the trolley’s wall and windows. The subjects are centered horizontally. The contrast overall is rather high, where the middle gray frames the subjects. Photographs that have strong compositions are:


  1. Identify the narrative.

Now that we’ve read the receipts we can spill all the tea we want! Think about the story and meaning of the photograph. While photographs are documents of the world around us, each image is carefully curated by the artist with regard to the story they want to tell. Sometimes that narrative is about people, where the expressions, actions, and clothing (or lack thereof) convey the character’s personality. Objects and colors can give more abstract context to the story, being symbolic of a larger idea. Be aware of what is not included in the frame as well based on any shadows, lines, or shapes surrounding the subject.

In Trolley, the assumption is that the passengers are using public transportation. The facial expressions and clothing indicate personalities, showing irritability in the older woman, apathy and concern in the children, and resignation in the man. Consider their lack of interaction. Other photographs with strong narratives include:


  1. Give context to the artwork.

Now that we have an understanding of what is going on in a photograph, we have to establish the why. The artist’s goals often shift the way a viewer interprets an image. Context can be given in two ways: within the photograph or through a title and artist statement.

Within the photograph, explore the details of location and time period. Location can be explored through the scenery, whether there is urban infrastructure or natural landscapes. The time in history can be more difficult to establish but clothing and objects often give it away. The time period is essential for understanding the social and political atmosphere of the scene. Tension and upheaval in racial, gender, and economic inequalities are prevalent throughout twentieth century photographs. While these larger ideas are not always the ultimate goal of the artist, it is important to understand the historical context.

The artist statement gives a very specific version of the artist’s story and objectives. These will place the exact year of the image and often describe the process and story behind the photograph. No photograph is neutral nor can it be objectively read. Viewers bring their own preconceived ideas to each image based on their own beliefs of what is visualized and what a photograph can do. The artist usually has a specific story they are telling to share information, create commentary, and give visuals to situations and ideas. 

The racial tensions in Trolley are the primary subject matter. The racially charged atmosphere is clear in the segregation of seats on the trolley. The dispositions of the passengers also hints to the turbulence of the time. Explore these other photographs that show a larger concept with greater context:


  1. Establish where the image exists.

Whether you’re scrolling through Instagram, on a gallery date, or seeing ads in a magazine, the location, size, placement, and space of the photograph can alter the reading of it. Consider where the image exists. Installations of photographs allow the artist to curate a viewer’s experience of the images. Images in advertisements have an indication of commodity and capitalism. Images on social media are immediately given ratings. While the first experience you have with a photograph is not the only way to read the image, the impression of your encounter will affect your reading.

Frank’s Trolley exists within the larger monograph The Americans, a book which features 83 photographs. There is a specific order for the viewer to read the images. Seeing a photograph between the pages of other photographs creates a connection between them, allowing the viewer to understand them in relationship to each other. Consider the following photographs and their installations:


Scrolling through Instagram might be a bit easier than critically reading a photograph, but the payoff is worth more than likes. The more practice you have, the better you will be at understanding the ways of truth and manipulation in images. While many of these steps seem simple, the act of slowing down will be beneficial for reading any kind of artwork. You will also be even better at spotting selfie edit fails

Epiphany Knedler

Adjunct Instructor, Forsyth Technical Community College

Comments (9)

Nick Chernick

I've lately taken up photography as a pastime. For the past three months, I have truly enjoyed doing it. I was able to snap a ton of cool and unique pictures with my new Canon PowerShot SX40 HS camera that I really appreciate.

Joanny Fay

Photographs are an excellent way to learn about the world around you. They can be used to explain scientific discoveries, help you understand how cultures differ from one another, or simply to add color and variety to your life.

henry water

"Interesting post. I am interested in art history and often go to museums. It always inspires me. I want to do drawing but I don't always have enough time.

Klais Lires

I love Epiphany's articles! Can't wait for more of these.

Reilly Beatty

The first and most important thing to do when you are looking at a photograph is to try and see it as art. That's the only way you will get anything out of it.

Nguyen Tra

Love an old school camera, don't see those around too much.


Remember when you used to take a picture and then you just had to hope that it turned out?

Eric Cartman

I've always felt that photography was a lesser artform compared to paintings.

Ciara Veum

The answer to these questions depends on the photographer’s intention. The photographer can choose to focus on the subject (as in a portrait), or he or she may be trying to capture a moment in time (as in a snapshot).