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Teaching with Special Collections

The Photograph as Inspiration and Investigation

Author: Mark E. Martin, Photographic Processing Archivist, LSU Libraries


Photography is a relatively young graphic art. When first presented to viewers, photographs were lauded for their ability to create what was seen as a detailed, complete, and accurate representation of the world around us untainted by the “creative” hand of man. Our language contains an echo of this early sentiment in the phrase, “The camera never lies.”

As it turns out, the camera almost always lies in some manner. Consider the images produced by the Matthew Brady Studio during the Civil War, particularly the Gettysburg series, or The North American Indian by Edward Curtis.

Every photograph is created with an intent to please the viewer based on whatever the current cultural dictates may be. Commercial works are intended to sell either as a work for hire that must meet the requirements of the patron or as images of sufficient general interest to sell to a willing public.

Photographs are, in large part due to the constraints mentioned above, powerful documents that engage the viewer. These images have the ability to stimulate the viewer’s imagination or to lead the viewer to consider a particular aspect of life, society, the arts, or some other matter.

But photographs are not merely images. They are the result of an interplay of technology, science, and culture. The history and development of photography from its inception in 1838 is intimately connected to many aspects of human life and endeavor. Indeed, the history of photography begins long before the announcement of the Daguerreotype. The components of technology and science necessary to produce a stable, long-lasting image came together over time from many disparate sources.


Activity 1:

Images for the Creative Mind: Poverty and Hunger Images

This exercise is intended to stimulate the creative mind. Using one photograph selected from the list below, write a 500-750 word story using your selected image as the source for your work.

1. Baton Rouge after the fire, about 1863
Andrew D. Lytle Collection

2. Untitled (Woman with Scarf), about.1880
Lemuel P. Conner and Family Papers

3. Man with wagon, about 1885
Thomas H. and Joan Gandy Photographic Collection

4. Family with wagon in front of shack, about 1890
Ronald S. Smith Photograph Collection

5. Four boys on log, about 1890
Thomas H. and Joan Gandy Photographic Collection

6. Family portrait in front of drop-cloth, about 1895
Lemuel P. Conner and Family Papers

7. Fun in levee camp, Atchafalaya River, 1900
Henry L. Fuqua, Jr. Lytle Photograph Collection and Papers

8. Man with gar, about 1930
Percy Viosca, Jr. Photograph Collection

9. Chighizola’s shack, 1933
“Cajun,” Winans, Fonville, page 111
Fonville Winans Photographs Collection

10. Making a living, 1934
“Fonville Winans' Louisiana : politics, people, and places,” Vetter, Cyril E., page 83
Fonville Winans Photographs Collection

11. Cajun fare, 1939
“Nous sommes Acadiens = We are Acadians,” Tassin, Myron, page 43
Fonville Winans Photographs Collection

12. Long watchers, 1940
“Nous sommes Acadiens = We are Acadians,” Tassin, Myron, page 116
Fonville Winans Photographs Collection

13. Paint for breakfast, about 1975
Donn Young Photographic Collection

14. NOLA housing interior, about 1980
Donn Young Photographic Collection


Activity 2

The Investigative Mind: How Do Cameras Work?

The second part of this activity is intended to stimulate the investigative mind. Using the three cameras listed below, research the changes in technology necessary to make each of the cameras work. Be sure to include information about the image capture system (lens, camera body, image capture system, image reproduction method) and the level of technical expertise required to create a useful, marketable product.

1.  Century View / portrait lens
2.  Kodak Autographic: No. 1-A Autographic Folding Pocket
3.  HIT micro camera


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