Critical Interpretation of Images and the AP History Classroom

Images are valuable but often underutilized resources available to all history teachers. If we can help students "see" primary-text visuals rather than look at them—for seeing is not the same as looking—students will be able to better interpret a time period and will develop a deeper understanding of an era.

All textbooks have charts, graphs, tables, and maps that we readily use. Why don't we spend the same energy using other visuals?

Probing an Image by Viewing It in Segments

Paintings, photographs, and political cartoons are the most common visuals in a text. We should teach students to view photographs, cartoons, or paintings in segments. Students can mentally divide the visual into quadrants or view the picture as foreground, midground, and background, noting the objects, activities, or people in each segment.

Then ask students a series of questions.

  • Does the segment contain people?
  • How are they dressed? What does the clothing, or lack thereof, tell us about the character? Can we date the characters by their clothing? Is the clothing a reflection of the subject's class?
  • What are the people doing? Are gestures, facial expressions, or body size and motion evident or significant?
  • What colors dominate the segment? Is the color natural to the scene? Why might these colors have been used?
  • Are there buildings in this segment?
  • In the case of a drawing or painting, why did the artist include these people or things?
  • What other objects are in the segment? Are they natural or manufactured? How are the people interacting with the objects or each other?
  • Are there animals in the segment? Would they normally be in such a scene? If not, what might they represent symbolically?

Asking these questions for each of the segments will prepare the viewer for looking at the visual as a whole.


  • Does the visual have a caption or title? How is it helpful in understanding the visual?
  • Do we know the date of the visual? How does the date relate to the time period being studied?
  • Can we learn more by checking the picture credits at the end of the chapter or at the back of the textbook?

Interpretation in Historical Context

Although we are making progress in the interpretation, the analysis is not yet complete. The student historian needs to determine if the visual is selective. Is the photograph, cartoon, or picture one that shows only part of the event? Are there other scenes of the event? Do these support the evidence shown in this graphic? Does textual information confirm or refute the impression created by the visual? Is it authentic?

In the case of a photo, the student historian has to decide whether things are really as they seem. Could the photo have been staged? Could angles of the event skew one's interpretation of the scene depicted? Could the photograph have been doctored? How would that impact the significance of the photo? Is it typical of the period? Would this depict average persons of the time period? Does it purposefully show a particular class, group, or occupation in a flattering or dismissive way?

This analysis of the visual and synthesis with textual and other sources challenges students to explore information for a more complete picture of an event in its context.

Analyzing Images in History Texts

Textbooks often introduce a chapter with a visual—usually one selected by the author or editor to exemplify the content of the chapter. How can we use this as a teaching tool?

The answer is to use the visual as an evaluation for the time period being studied. A single open-ended question, such as, "How does this photo/cartoon/painting reflect the era?" could be used.

A classic example would be Emanuel Leutze's painting "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way," commissioned by Congress in 1860 and still a fixture in the Capitol Building.

You could use this image to test students’ understanding of Manifest Destiny, the role of the government, and a prevailing attitude of the explorer/adventurer/settler.

If you used the open-ended questions, I'm sure students will comment on many things, including:

  • The dominant color (gold)
  • The means of transportation
  • Travel difficulties in the mountains and on the plains
  • Romanticism
  • Religion
  • Government's desire for peopling the West
  • The push for what becomes the Homestead Act
  • Other economic push-and-pull factors
  • The impact of the Mexican War
  • The California and Oregon trails
  • The decline in fertility of the land of the "Old South"
  • Families
  • Trappers
  • The impact on sectionalism

Students enjoy this detective work, and they'll utilize critical-thinking skills needed not only for the AP Exam but also for life beyond the classroom. Student mining of visuals will reap intellectual, historical, and experiential rewards.

Authored by

James M. Wolfe
Maryland Historical Society
Baltimore, Maryland