Grades/Level: Middle School (6–8), High School (9–12)
Subjects: Visual Arts, English–Language Arts, History–Social Science
Time Required: 2–Part Lesson
1–2 class periods
Author: J. Paul Getty Museum Education Staff

For the Classroom

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Analyzing Photographs
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Lesson Overview

Building on the strategies learned in lesson 1, students will examine works of art in a museum setting.

Learning Objectives

Students will:
• look closely and critically at photographs (or non-photographic imagery).
• use the methods of description, reflection, and formal analysis to analyze the images encountered in the galleries.
• write interactive descriptions of Héctor García's photograph Visita Kennedy, Avenida 20 Noviembre (or another image rich in details).
• write reflective observations and poems based on Man Ray's photograph Tears (or another image with strong emotional properties).
• sketch simple compositions using the elements and principles of art based on the photograph Memphis by William Eggleston (or another image with strong formal properties).
• apply what they have learned by taking their own pictures.


• Sketchbooks and pencils
• Images of the works of art below
• Student Handout: Formal Analysis—Elements of Art
• Student Handout: Formal Analysis—Principles of Design

Lesson Steps

Note: If it is not possible to make a trip to a museum, the same strategies and activities will work in the classroom. Additionally, if your local museum does not display photography, other forms of art such as painting or sculpture will also work well for this lesson. Many museums post images from their collection on their website. Search for art that will work well with this lesson. Choose images that are rich in details, emotive qualities, and strong formal properties.

This lesson contains three activities. Each activity uses a different object to explore one method of analysis and emphasize concentrated looking. When using non-photographic images, emphasize that the tools students are learning can be used to analyze any work of art from any time period, including photographs. This activity is an engaging way to help students create rich, descriptive sentences. Learning to write these sentences will be helpful when students create their own artist's statements in later lessons.

Description Activity
This activity should focus on an object that is rich in details, which will give students the opportunity to write highly detailed descriptions. Images like Héctor García's Visita Kennedy, Avenida 20 Noviembre will work very well for this activity because there are many details for students to observe and describe. You may also wish to browse through photographs created by Los Angeles students and find one that contains many details.

• Ask students to divide a page from their sketchbook into quadrants and label each quadrant with one part of speech: nouns, verbs, adverbs, and adjectives. Students should then be divided into four groups. Explain that each group will be responsible for brainstorming words for one part of speech. The "noun group" will come up with a list of nouns that they see in the image. The "adverb group" will come up with a list of adverbs that they see, and so on. Give the groups five minutes to compose their lists. When groups have completed their lists, each should choose a spokesperson to read their list, and the other groups should copy the words down in the appropriate quadrant.

When completed, lists should look like this:

Nouns Verbs
crowd drive
flags fall
confetti smile
people cheer
Adverbs Adjectives
joyously exciting
excitedly loud
noisily busy
orderly fantastic

• Next, using the words from the four lists, students should compose sentences that use at least one word from each of the quadrants. Some examples based on the words above might be: "In this image the loud crowd cheers joyously." or "The fantastic confetti falls excitedly." Students should share their sentences with the class.

Reflection Activity
In this section, students will assess and respond to the work of art on a personal level, analyzing the effects that the work has on its audience. Images should be chosen that have a strong emotive characteristic, such as Man Ray's photograph Tears.

• Ask students to brainstorm why the artist would have taken a picture like this. Ask them to consider how the artist wanted his viewers to feel when they looked at this image. Students should record their answers in their sketchbook. Students should discuss their answers with a partner or in a small group.

• Ask students to write a persona poem inspired by the image. Explain to students that in a persona poem, the poet writes from the perspective of someone else, a persona. Each student should write the poem as if he or she is the photographer. The poem should reveal why the photographer was drawn to take the photograph. Invite students to refer to their sketchbooks for ideas and to the word bank they generated in the Description Activity for words and images. Remind students that, since we cannot know what is in the artist's mind when the photograph was taken, there are no correct responses. Encourage them to use their imaginations and picture themselves as the photographer. What is moving, curious, or interesting about the scene? What is the first thing they notice? What textures, sounds, and smells would they encounter if they were in the photograph?

• Have a spokesperson from each group share the ways in which the poems were similar or different.

Formal Analysis Activity
For this activity, students will be sketching an image in their journals. Pick an image that would provide good opportunities to discuss formal analysis in detail like the photograph Memphis by William Eggleston. This image is ideal for this activity because of its strong formal characteristics, such as proportion and emphasis. Objects selected for this activity should have strong lines and other formal characteristics. Explain that artists-in-training often sketch the works of master artists to learn.

• Ask students to sketch the image in their sketchbook. Review the terms line, shape, and space. Have the class begin their sketch by using line to mark the main areas of the composition. Then have them block in/connect the lines to create the large areas of shape. Remind them to keep space in mind, both positive and negative, as they fill the page.

• Once the main shapes are in place, review the terms form, value, and texture. Ask the students to transform the shapes and define space by adding value and texture.

If students get frustrated or are not sure how to re-create an area of the masterwork, instruct them to go back to using line, then shape, then space, then form, etc. Students may adjust their sketches/compositions as they see fit.

• Referring to the student handouts Elements of Art and Principles of Design, conduct a formal analysis of the artwork. Ask students to identify the key principles based on their process of sketching. Discuss the sketching process and how it enhanced their understanding of the artwork. Students may also write a formal analysis of the piece, focusing on three main elements or principles in the artwork.

• As they move through the process of re-creating the composition on paper, students will come to appreciate how the formal characteristics contribute to the overall composition. For instance, in this image, students should notice how the lines along the left side of the composition serve to distance the woman in the booth, as well as to guide our eyes towards her. Because we realize how long these lines are, we realize how far away she is, dwarfed in space. Proportionally, the woman is very small when compared to the space that surrounds her, but her position is emphasized by her situation underneath the vertical white stripe just to her right.

Post-Visit Activity
• Distribute disposable cameras to students. Tell them to document daily life in their communities. Explain that large events, such as parades, can be great opportunities to take pictures. Images of everyday events can also be opportunities to take meaningful pictures. Point out to the students that they can make their images more exciting and dynamic by changing their position in relation to their subject. For instance, students should experiment with standing on top of a chair and looking down at an object from above, as well as crouching down and looking up at an object from below. In addition, remind students that they can turn their cameras 90 degrees to frame their images with a vertical composition.

Remind students to be aware of the elements of art and principles of design as they take their pictures. Ask them to consider how the photographers they analyzed in class used the elements of art and principles of design to create strong compositions.

• Students should develop their film and bring their images to class. These images will be necessary for the following lesson plan (lesson 3) on writing an artist's statement.

Visita Kennedy / H. Garcia
Visita Kennedy, Avenida 20 Noviembre, Héctor García, 1962
© Héctor García


Evaluation of written assignment and sketches for inclusion of the following:
• Demonstration of close looking skills
• Application of the three methods of visual analysis

Evaluation of written assignment and sketches for:
• Demonstration of close looking skills
• Understanding of the three methods of visual analysis
• Ability to use the vocabulary of the elements of art and principles of design to conduct formal analysis and apply it to an image

Students should be able to articulate in discussion and through written assignment:
• The three methods of visual analysis and how each can contribute to a greater understanding of a work of art
• The vocabulary of the elements of art and principles of design and how they can be applied to analyzing an image

Standards Addressed

Common Core Standards for English Language Arts

Grades 6–12

Key Ideas and Details
1. Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

Craft and Structure
4. Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.

Text Types and Purposes
2. Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.

Production and Distribution of Writing
4. Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

Comprehension and Collaboration
1. Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
2. Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

Conventions of Standard English
1. Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.

For more national and California state standards for this curriculum, refer to the charts found in the links at the top right of this page.