University of Wisconsin–Madison

Written Analysis of a Photograph in English

Professor Christa Olson, English 550

Assignment II: Historical Visions

This assignment will help you build your skills as a rhetorical critic, with a particular focus on historical and contextual analysis. You’ll choose a historical photograph of University life and investigate its context, circulation, and use. As a class, we’ll spend time in campus archives and discuss historical research techniques. As the Campbell & Burkholder chapter on contextual analysis suggests, your task for this assignment is to identify how your image is “a product of, and function[s] within, a particular historical context” (49). Your final product will be an essay that makes a specific, arguable claim about the photograph and its context and then demonstrates that claim through analysis of the photograph and supporting materials. Enroute to that essay, you’ll also produce a close reading of your chosen photograph, a narrated slideshow of additional photographs designed to provide visual context, and an essay draft for peer review.

The photograph you choose for your research and analysis should elicit a question or comparison when you look at it. It should shock, confuse, or surprise you; it should make you wonder what’s going on, why it was taken, or how the pictured event happened. You should also choose a photo that gives you leads for research: a photo of an unidentified man on a balcony may be interesting, but it will be hard to write a paper if you can’t connect the photo to an event, issue, or group.

Step 1: Close Analysis

On Tuesday, March 6, we’ll make our first visit to the University Archives. During that visit, you’ll select a photograph as your central artifact for the project. Before class on Thursday, March 8, spend some time with that photograph and prepare a written close analysis of it. Using the tools of compositional analysis and descriptive analysis discussed earlier in the semester, describe the visual elements of the photograph, imagine its possible audiences, and consider its purpose and tone. Close Analyses should be 2-3 double-spaced (typed) pages long. Bring your analysis to our class at the Archives on March 8 and plan to turn it in at the end of the session (you can use the analysis during class to help guide your research).

Step 2: Beginning Research

Once you’ve chosen and analyzed the elements of your photo, you’ll turn to researching the context for it in order to better understand what your photograph tells us about University life and identity. To begin, look for archival and historical evidence. Using campus newspapers, scrapbooks, yearbooks, letters, other photographs, etc. look for answers to questions such as:

  • Who took the photograph? Why?
  • Who saw the photograph at the time it was made? Did it circulate publicly?
  • What does the photograph tell us about life at the University of Wisconsin?
  • What major issues or questions discussed on campus at the time show up in photograph?
  • What groups or organizations is the photograph connected to and what were they like?
  • Does the photograph show something that was typical or atypical on campus at the time?
  • What did other people have to say about the events/spaces/people in the photograph?
  • Does the photograph connect to events beyond the University? How?

Step 3: Make a Context Slideshow

As you’re doing research, keep an eye out for photographs, maps, and other images that you think help clarify what’s going on in your main photograph. Of those images, select 9 that you find particularly evocative or useful for explaining what’s going on in your main photograph. Arrange those nine images, along with your main photograph, into a ten-image slideshow. Then, record an audio narration to run under the slideshow that explains how the images you’ve chosen provide context for your main photograph. The finished slideshow should be two minutes and thirty seconds long, or approximately 15 seconds per slide. You’ll present your slideshows during class on March 20 and 22.

Step 4: Writing the Paper

Based on your research and previous analyses (Steps 2 & 3), write a paper that presents your photograph and makes a claim about how it might have been seen, used, or understood in its original context. To craft your claim, you may want to draw on some of the rhetorical concepts we’ve developed in class. Your paper should present and support a clear argument about the use and meaning of the photograph: its rhetorical force.

Bring a draft of your Historical Visions paper to class on Thursday, March 29. We’ll take some time during class to exchange papers and organize plans for offering peer review.

The final paper should be 6-8 pages long (double-spaced, 12-pt standard font, 1” margins) and should be submitted to Learn@UW by 11:59pm on Sunday, April 15.

Evaluation of the final paper will be based on the following criteria:

  • A clearly articulated argument about the photograph’s rhetorical force in context
  • Appropriate evidence that supports, demonstrates, and justifies the argument
  • Successful use of the skills for analysis we’ve been developing in class
  • Persuasive explanation of exigency (why does this picture matter, then and now?)
  • “Details”: citations, proofreading, evidence of effort and care

Schedule in Brief

Tuesday, March 6 – Meet at the University Archives in Steenbock Memorial Library to select main photograph

Thursday, March 8 – Meet at the University Archives. Bring 2-3 page close analysis of photograph.

Tuesday, March 20 – Have 10-image slideshows complete. Present either today or March 22

Thursday, March 29 – Bring draft of Historical Visions paper to class

Sunday, April 16 – Final Historical Visions paper due on Learn@UW