Grades/Level: Middle School (6–8), High School (9–12)
Subjects: Visual Arts
Time Required: Long–Term Unit
Approximately 7–9 class periods
Author: Joan Dooley, A.P. Art History and Photography Teacher, Fairfax Senior High School Magnet Center for the Visual Arts, Los Angeles, with J. Paul Getty Museum Education Staff

For the Classroom

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Lesson Overview

Explore the definition of a portrait. Students discuss two of Dorothea Lange's portraits and create their own portraits of their classmates.

Learning Objectives

• Students will define the meaning of the term "portrait."
• Students will discuss, analyze, interpret, and compare two images by Dorothea Lange, determining whether they are portraits and describing why or why not.
• Students will interview a classmate in preparation for making a photograph of him or her.
• Students will borrow strategies used by Lange and emphasize certain art elements and principles of design to create a portrait that captures the distinctive character of a classmate.


Cameras, film, photo paper, darkroom

If no darkroom is available, use digital or Polaroid cameras or have film developed at a commercial lab. For black-and-white photos, use C-41 black-and-white film (such as Ilford Super XP-2). Although this film prints black-and-white, it can be processed at any one-hour color lab.

If cameras are not available, use drawing media that can be used to produce effects similar to black-and-white photography (charcoal, pencils, graphite, for example).

Lesson Steps

Day 1: Students discuss the term "portrait." What are some different examples of photographic portraits (annual school pictures, or driver's license and wedding photos, for example)? Some photographic portraits are formal and some are candid. What are some examples of each? (Yearbooks often contain both kinds of images.) What is the difference between candid and formal portraits? What are some of the functions of portraits? Are all portraits works of art? Why or why not? Have students work in small groups to write definitions of the term "portrait." Have each group share its definition with the rest of the class.

Students view and discuss the two photographs by Dorothea Lange. Are they portraits? Why or why not? If they are portraits, do they appear to be candid or formal? Do students' definitions of "portrait" apply to these images? Would students change their definitions after seeing and discussing these images? If so, how?

Compare the two photographs, discussing the facial expressions, body language, settings, and other details in each image. How are the images alike and how are they different?

What might the artist have wanted to communicate with each image? How would you describe the mood of each image? How does the artist communicate that mood? Analyze and compare the photographs from a formal standpoint, discussing, for example, how Lange composed and framed each image, the vantage point from which she snapped each image, and the elements of art and principles of design that are most important in each image. How do these elements help to tell the story of the people depicted in each image?

Art historians and critics often describe Migrant Mother as being "iconic" or "emblematic" [symbolizing the Depression era or even larger, more timeless ("universal") themes]. What universal themes could the image represent?

Lange continued to make black-and-white photographs long after color photography was possible. If these two images were made in color would their meanings change? If so, how?

Day 2: Students discuss Lange's working methods. Throughout her career, Dorothea Lange was assigned to document important historical and social events, such as the situation of farm workers during the Depression and Dust Bowl era (Migrant Mother) or the effects of the shipbuilding boom in Richmond, California during World War II ("It Was Never Like This Back Home"). These assignments required Lange to photograph people she did not know. What challenges might this have presented for both the photographer and her subjects? Lange often interviewed her subjects. Why might she have done this?

Students pair up with a classmate they will photograph. (Encourage students to work with classmates they don't know very well.)

Students draft interview questions that will help them get to know their subjects better. Sample questions:

• How would you describe yourself in three words?
• What do you want to be when you "grow up"?
• What's your favorite magazine?
• If the magazine were to publish a cover story on you, what would the first sentence of the lead be?
• What would the cover photo look like? What feeling would it convey?
• If the photographer said you could choose any prop or background (with no budget limitations), what would you choose?

Day 3: Students interview one another and discuss how to represent one another in a portrait. After reviewing their interview notes, students write a short essay describing the essential qualities and attitude of their partner. Next, students make notes and sketches detailing how they plan to capture those qualities in a photograph. Students should consider facial expressions; the choice of settings in and around the school; and the use of close-ups, vantage points, framing, and specific elements of art and principles of design, such as contrast or texture.

Day 4: Students photograph one another according to their plans. Options if cameras are not available: Students draw one another with charcoal, pencil, graphite, or other black-and-white media, and use Lange's photographs as models for ideas about framing and vantage point. Students decide which elements of art and principles of design to emphasize in order to capture the character of their partner.

Days 5-7: Students develop film, print proof sheets, select the portrait that best conveys the subject's character, and print enlargements. Students mat their photograph (or drawing) and title it, using their interview notes and essay as sources of ideas for their title.

It Was Never / Lange
Richmond, California/It Was Never Like This Back Home, Dorothea Lange, about 1943.
© Oakland Museum of California, City of Oakland


• Teacher observation of student discussion and work.
• In a critique format or essay, students discuss the mood and attitude they attempted to capture in their portrait and the choices they made in attempting to do so (setting, vantage point, framing, and the elements of art and principles of design they emphasized).
• Students also discuss any relationships they see between their own images and those by Dorothea Lange. Did the student achieve what she/he had hoped to? Why or why not? Classmates respond with comments and questions.

Teacher also evaluates final products based on the following criteria:
• Technical: careful framing, detail, clarity, contrast is evident in proof sheets and enlargements; careful craftsmanship evident in presentation (matting and written captions).
• Creative: shows exploration of different concepts used to effectively express the mood or character of the subject; shows experimentation with different viewing angles, lighting, and framing.

Standards Addressed

Common Core Standards for English Language Arts

Grades 6–12

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.

Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas
4. Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

Visual-Arts Content Standards for California Public Schools

Grade 6

Artistic Perception
1.2–Discuss works of art as to theme, genre, style, idea, and differences in media.
Creative Expression
2.5–Select specific media and processes to express moods, feelings, themes, or ideas.
Aesthetic Valuing
4.1–Construct and describe plausible interpretations of what they perceive in works of art.

Grade 7
Artistic Perception
1.1–Describe the environment and selected works of art, using the elements of art and the principles of design.
1.4–Analyze and describe how the elements of art and principles of design contribute to the expressive qualities of their own works of art.
Creative Expression
2.6–Create original artwork, using film, photography, computer graphics, or video.
Aesthetic Valuing
4.1–Explain the intent of a personal work of art and draw possible parallels between that artwork and the artwork of a recognized artist.

Grade 8
Artistic Perception
1.1–Use artistic terms when describing the intent and content of their own artworks or the artworks of others.
1.2–Analyze and justify how their artistic choices contribute to the expressive quality of their artwork.
Creative Expression
2.3–Create original artwork, using film, photography, computer graphics, or video.
Aesthetic Valuing
4.3–Construct an interpretation of a work of art based on the form and content of the work.

Grades 9–12 ("Proficient")
Creative Expression
2.1 Solve a visual arts problem that involves the effective use of the elements of art and principles of design.
Aesthetic Valuing
4.5 Employ the conventions of art criticism in writing and speaking about artworks.

National Standards for Visual Arts

Grades 5-8

3. Choosing and Evaluating a Range of Subject Matter, Symbols, and Ideas
Students integrate visual, spatial, and temporal concepts with content to communicate intended meaning in their artworks.

Grades 9-12
1.Understanding and Applying Media, Techniques, and Processes
Students apply media, techniques, and processes with sufficient skill, confidence, and sensitivity that their intentions are carried out in their artworks.
5. Reflecting upon and Assessing the Characteristics and Merits of Their Work and the Work of Others
Students reflect analytically on various interpretations as a means for understanding and evaluating works of visual art.