Photographs: Research & Ordering

Subjects: How-To Guides
Tags: arts, how-to, photos

Strengths and Weaknesses

Woman exercising on the horizontal bars, approx. 1935.Strengths:

  • Captures a moment in time in a visual medium
  • Quickly and concisely informs about people, places, objects, and events 
  • Provides information that is difficult to convey through written formats (fashion, decor, art, etc.)
  • Sometimes records details of everyday life of people that are not captured in written records 
  • Can evoke memories and/or emotions in the viewer 



  • People, place, date, and the name of the photographer are often not identified
  • May reflect the bias or perspective of the photographer
  • Photographs must be studied in conjunction with other evidence. Without context, a photo may be interesting but not informative.
  • Photographs are taken for different purposes.  Not all photographs were taken with documentary intent and some are heavily manipulated  
  • Many decades of photographs are in black-and-white or the color has faded and is no longer accurate 

Reading Photographs

Photos can be great primary sources, but they require more than a quick glance.  To get the most out of an image, the researcher needs to engage with image and "read" it in a critical way.

Red Cross in Fergus Falls after cyclone, 6/22/1919Some good questions to ask while looking at a photo are:   

  • What do you already know about the photo?
    • Photographer?
    • Location?
    • Date?
    • Caption or other written description?
  • Look at the entire photograph
    • What is the subject matter? (Portrait, building, event, etc.)
    • What is happening in the photo?
  • Look at individual parts of the photograph
    • What is in the Foreground? The Background?
    • Where is your eye drawn first?  What less-obvious things do you notice.  
    • Examine people, objects, signage, setting, time, etc...
  • What does the photo say to you? To others?
    • Are the people in the photo expressing certain emotions?
    • Does it evoke certain emotions in the viewer? 
  • Why was the photograph taken and who is the audience?
    • For a documentary or journalism purpose?
    • For sale (as a postcard, poster, etc.)?
    • To advertise something?
    • As an artistic expression?
  • What decisions did the photographer make when taking this picture?
    • Is it posed?
    • Why did they take the photo at that exact moment?  What happened right before the photo was taken?  Right after?
    • Did the photographer make the choices they did (perspective, focus, angles, etc.)?
    • Was the photo edited, cropped, or colorized?  What did that change? 
  • What questions do you have after viewing the photo?

Citing Photographs

The goal of citing research sources is to enable researchers to locate the exact item which is being referenced.  The most basic information needed for citing a source from MNHS collections includes:

  • Title
  • Creator
  • Date
  • Page numbers (when applicable)
  • Collection name

Photographer is known:

Photographer. Title. Date. Minnesota Historical Society, Saint Paul, MN. 

Enstrom, Louis. Cat in Doll Bed. ca. 1915. Minnesota Historical Society, Saint Paul, MN. 

Photographer is known, and image is part of a larger collection:

Photographer. Title. Date. Collection Name. Minnesota Historical Society, Saint Paul, MN.

Robert McNeely. Walter Mondale holds a meeting in the Vice President's Office in the West Wing of the White House. 9 February 1977.  Vice President's Photographer negatives, Vice Presidential Papers, Walter F. Mondale Papers. Minnesota Historical Society, Saint Paul, MN.


Photographer is unknown, but image is in a larger collection:

Title. Date. Collection Name. Minnesota Historical Society, Saint Paul, MN.
Chimp with a Graflex Camera. 1937. Minneapolis and St. Paul Newspaper Negative Collection. Minnesota Historical Society, Saint Paul, MN.


Photographer is unknown:

Title. Date. Minnesota Historical Society, Saint Paul, MN.

For more examples of citations for different types of materials, please visit our website at

What are primary sources?

Primary sources are materials from the time of the person or event being researched.  Letters, diaries, artifacts, photographs, and other types of first-hand accounts and records are all primary sources.

Confused about Primary vs. Secondary Sources?  Check out our short video tutorial:


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