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

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Analyzing Photographs
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Lesson Overview

Students will read an artist's statement by Dorothea Lange and write an artist's statement based on their own photographs.

Learning Objectives

Students will:
• examine the relationship between photography and the artist's statement.
• look closely at their own works of art.
• use the methods of description, reflection, and formal analysis to write their own artist's statements.


• Paper and pencils
• An image of Human Erosion in California (Migrant Mother) by Dorothea Lange

Lesson Steps

1. Inform students that they will examine a photograph and artist's statement by a famous photographer in order to assist them in writing their own statements.

Have your students view photographs and read artist's statements created by Los Angeles students as models for their own work.

2. Examine the image Human Erosion in California (Migrant Mother) by Dorothea Lange. Give students time to quietly examine the image. Before discussing, students should brainstorm questions they have about the photograph. A useful tool for beginning this dialogue is asking the students what they would like to know about the picture or the photographer. These questions can be recorded on the blackboard, and will ideally form the basis for the artist's statements the students will write.

3. As a class, read Lange's comments about her photograph, below. You may wish to project this statement onto a screen or print handouts ahead of time.

"I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it."
—Dorothea Lange, from Popular Photography, February 1960

4. After reading the artist's statement aloud, the following can be used as discussion questions:

• Are there questions you had about this image that were not answered in Lange's comments?
• In her artist's statement, Dorothea Lange deliberately chose to give us particular information. For instance, why do you think Lange chose to tell us that the migrant woman is 32 years old? Did this information surprise you?
• Lange described her attraction to the migrant mother as "magnetic," a force she could not resist. Have you experienced a similar attraction to a subject you photographed?
• Lange used words such as "hungry" and "desperate" to describe her subject. How do these words affect the way we view this photograph?

5. Next, each student will write an artist's statement based on his or her own photograph. Students should select one image from their work that they find most captivating.

6. Once students have selected a photograph, they should write responses based on the three methods of analysis that they practiced in the previous two lessons. As a prewriting activity, students can use the activities outlined in the museum visit lesson (Lesson 2) as a way to brainstorm ideas for their own statements. The questions that the class provided in step 2 of this lesson may also be helpful.

7. The students' artist's statements should be at least three paragraphs in length (one paragraph can be committed to each analytic method). Remind them to be aware of transitions between sentences to unify important ideas. Students should also use correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation.

8. When writing their descriptive paragraph, students should describe specific details in their image using complete sentences. Using the Dorothea Lange image as a model, inform students that you might begin by writing: "In this image, a woman sits with her face resting in her hand..."

9. For the reflective section, the following is a list of possible questions that can be used to provoke responses:

• Why did you choose this image to represent your work?
• When you took this photograph, what first caught your eye?
• Where were you when you took this picture?
• What were you doing when you took this picture?
• What time of day was it?
• What were you thinking when you took this picture?
• What ideas or feelings were you trying to capture in this image?
• How were you able to capture these ideas or feelings?
• What do you think about now when you look at this image?
• How would you like the viewer to respond when they look at this image?
• How did you expect this image to look? What, if anything, looks different than what you expected? What surprised you about this image?

10. Finally, students should analyze their image formally. The following is a list of questions that can prompt students to write responses based on formal analysis:
• Which are the 2 or 3 most important elements of art or principles of design in your photograph?
• How did you use the principles of design in your work?
• Which principles of design are most visible in your work?
• How do these principles contribute to the meaning of your work?

Students should use the answers to these questions to construct their own artist's statements.

11. Because an artist's statement is complex, students should go through a process of revisions. Peer review will also help students refine their ideas as well as get an outside opinion on their works of art.

12. When the artists' statements are completed, organize an exhibition of the student's work. Display both images and artist’s statements for the class, the school, and/or the broader community.

Migrant Mother / Lange
Human Erosion in California (Migrant Mother), Dorothea Lange, 1936


Evaluation of written assignment for:
• Application of the three methods of visual analysis
• Demonstration of close looking skills
• Evidence of proper structure, grammar, and spelling

Evaluation of written assignment 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.

Range of Writing
10. Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of tasks, purposes, and audiences.

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.

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.