Closer Readings Commentary

Introducing Photogrammar to Teach Media Literacy and U.S. History

I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs. I knew at that point I had to have a camera. — Gordon Parks

For students to grow into informed citizens, media literacy is an indispensable skill. Yet, incorporating this complex topic within an already crowded curriculum can prove tricky. An elegant solution to this dilemma is to consider teaching media literacy through a historical lens, which will provide students the needed critical distance while simultaneously building content knowledge about U.S. history and government. Read on to learn about a new online tool, Photogrammar, that lets you do all this and more. Add it to your tool kit for interdisciplinary media-history lessons and primary source discovery.

What is Photogrammer and how can it help you nail the fundamental place played by the media in 20th-century American history?

First, some historical context. The power of journalism to advance a political agenda was pioneered over a century ago. This so-called “yellow journalism” flew off the presses of news magnates William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. While President Teddy Roosevelt called journalists like Upton Sinclair (The Jungle) and Ida Tarbell (The History of the Standard Oil Company) “muckrakers,” he viewed the press as his ally in shaping public opinion. T.R. adroitly used the public uproar over Sinclair’s exposé to force Congress to pass the landmark legislation of the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act.

The mixing of media and politics continued to grow as the 20th century wore on. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s innovative use of radio “Fireside Chats” calmed the fears of a worried nation and explained complex legislation like the Lend-Lease Act. These are textbook examples of presidential media savvy.

FDR was also the first president to latch onto the power of visual image, a crucial component of any media literacy lesson. To garner popular support for New Deal initiatives, the Roosevelt Administration sent out photographers to document rural life and poverty throughout America. Students still respond to compelling images like Dorothea Lange’s iconic photo of a thin-lipped woman holding her child. Working with visual documents of this quality are a fundamental step in gaining an understanding of the power of visual rhetoric and an image’s ability to advance an agenda.


Enter the NEH-funded Photogrammar project, developed at Yale University. In this online database of photos commissioned by the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information, users browse images through an interactive map as well as a more traditional search and tagging function. The collection can be filtered by date, photographer (Ben Shahn, Gordon Parks, and Dorothea Lange, among others), geographical area, or content, and is especially rich in its depictions of sharecropping and agriculture, industry, daily life in the 1930s-40s, Dust Bowl poverty, and the World War II home front. Using the map tool, we can see that Gordon Parks, for example, worked from upstate New York to Florida, exclusively on the East Coast; Dorothea Lange, on the other hand, worked across the South, and in the West. The Metadata Explorer (undergoing construction; California is now available) is a valuable tool for organizing information by photographer, theme, and a photo's location (county). The Treemap helps students organize their work through a tiered breakdown of the site's twelve main subject categories. Both visualizations aid the conduction of productive searches as well as a comparative analysis across a range of subjects.

History teachers can assign students to browse Photogrammar to find images for PowerPoint presentations or for use as primary sources in research papers (in alignment with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.7). The images also make great sources for practice A.P. U.S. History DBQ’s about the New Deal, urbanization, migrant workers, and women in the workplace.

Today the world is image-saturated, but the power of photographs to reflect, if not make, history has not faded. The Pulitzer Prize, which celebrates its centennial this year, continues to bestow awards for photojournalism (see a gallery of winning photos that can be used as lesson source material here). The reason we teach students to analyze images is summed up in the editors’ note to the first glossy issue of the photo-heavy magazine LIFE in 1936: because photography is a “human document” that can capture, on a visceral level, the stories of “hundreds, perhaps thousands.”*

 * H.R. Luce, J. S. Billings, and D. Longwell, "Introduction to This First Issue of LIFE," Life, November 23, 1936.


If you need tools for image analysis and photojournalism, we recommend these resources from the Getty Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and the National Archives:

After asking students to evaluate how these images might have influenced the public’s perception of New Deal policies, the discussion of the influence of visual media extends easily to the present. Students can turn from analyzing historical photos to modern coverage (which has reached election-induced fever pitch). What images are splayed on the front page, and what impressions do they give? Here are some resources that may be helpful in guiding the conversation:


Elizabeth Partridge, Dorothea Lange: “Grab a Hunk of Lightning,” Closer Readings (blog), August 25, 2014.

Paula Wasley, “For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights,” Humanities, February 2, 2014.