Photo Analysis Challenge:


Why not write an analysis of any of the Notman prints you see on this site, or of any other Notman prints you may own, or know about  –  and post it here?  The  William Notman Photographic Society Site Moderator will add your text and image to the  site.

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(If you would like to view m0re Notman images go to Links)

Here are some ideas  to consider as you write your piece.  The first two, (A) and (B,) are articles from the McCord Museum,  and the last text, (C),  also suggest important framework of concepts that you might perhaps use as a template as you write:


Pictures capture moments in time.  They are windows through which we can glimpse at the people who make up our heritage.  This activity uses a series of historical photographs to challenge your descriptive skills as a writer.  You’ll be asked to contemplate the composition and expressive elements of various photographs; to place yourself in the moment, imagining the thoughts and circumstances of the people in the photograph.  You’ll even be asked to play the role of the photographer!


Lighting natural artificial harsh  soft  dark  light  bright  shade  tone  rich  deep  contrast  vivid  luminous  dramatic  dull  dreary  lacklustre
Composition balance  focus  overlapping  shallow  deep  flat  attention  interest  focal point  foreground  background  scene  juxtaposition  cropping
Expressions sombre  solemn  serious  jovial  ecstatic  playful  sad  despondent  cheerless  infuriated  anxious  thoughtful  content  composed  tense  confident  shy  resolute  irresolute  staunch
vantage point   high/low anglesubject  audience

(1)  Study this photograph of eight-year-old Grace Tinning and describe the young girl’s qualities as captured by her portrait.  What adds to the mood of the photograph? (Remember to use your vocabulary sheet).Image MP-1988.75.12

By imagining you are the photographer who took the picture, describe the image as you saw it in real life; describe the colours, odours and feelings you experienced on that day.

(2)  Image VIEW-1817

As a photographer born in England, you are taking portraits of the native peoples of a region known as the North West Territories (later to become Alberta).  It takes several minutes to pose these Sarcee girls and take their photograph.  During this process, you examine your subjects carefully and write down what you observe.

(3)  This portrait of Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill was taken in Montreal’s Notman Studio.  Imagine yourself as one of these legendary figures and describe the significance of the tableau you and the other figure create together.  Why are you posed alongside each other and dressed the way you are?

Image II-83124

(4)  Disaster!  The Quebec Bridge, a marvel of industrial design and ingenuity, has collapsed.  Consider this event then describe this photograph in terms of what it shows, and what it is not able to show.

Image MP-0000.1727.5

Part (B)  Historical Analysis of Images



Date the photograph was taken:


Describe it:

What type of photograph is it? Is it a portrait, for example? Or perhaps a landscape or an outdoor scene?

What is the focus of the photograph? What is the main subject? Is there a secondary one? (Note: a subject may be a person or a thing, like a landscape.)

Describe the composition (how and where the subject is framed) the lighting and the background (real-painted). You may also note the angle of the shot.

Is there a clear purpose for which the photograph was taken? Was it, for example, part of a commercial, military, record-setting, artistic, advertising or marketing endeavour? Also, note whether it is part of a series of photographs or a body of work.

Sample questions:

Where was the photograph taken? Was the setting (indoors or outdoors) modified in any way?

Have any objects been placed in the shot? What might be the significance of each object and its placement?

Do professional devices like posing stands, lights, reflectors or restraining belts appear to have been used?

Sample questions:

Was the picture taken in haste? Are there blurred or fuzzy areas in the photo indicating movement during an extended period of exposure?

What events led up to the moment that the photograph was taken, and what events followed? Is it possible that this is a reconstruction of an event?

What clues can you find in the photograph to identify the time period in which it was taken?

Sample questions:

What do we know about the photographer? Was he/she a professional or an amateur?

What might have been the photographer’s intention when taking this picture?

What role might the subject have played in the construction of this image? Did the subject(s) request the photograph? Did the subject(s) give their consent?

Analyze it

Use what you know and what you can speculate to explore the historical relevance of the photograph.
Sample questions:

The subjects of this photograph are linked to what events in Canadian history?

While a photograph may never change, the significance of an image changes constantly over time. Describe what you can learn from this photograph as it relates to the following:

• Political and economic events;

• Culture, lifestyle and societal norms;

• Changes in technology and living standards;

• Divisions between social classes and cultural realities;

• Authenticity and romantic or biased representations of reality.

Final thoughts:

• What elements are not shown?

• Do you have any other questions or reactions to this photograph?

What do we know about the people or objects in the photograph?


Learn…1…the language of sensory descriptions. Talk and write about an image using the most concrete sensory vocabulary. If you say “tree,” talk about how the leaves and branches move, sound, feel and are shaped. What makes this tree different from others. Move from a level of generality to greater and greater specificity in the language you use.

2…the language describing processes of perception. Talk and write about your own stages in looking at and interpreting the picture. What caught your eye; what stood out emphatically; what took a while to notice; how did your eye move around the picture; did it keep coming back to a certain spot?

3…the language for describing the relation between visual and audio elements and their emotional effect. Discuss how a picture conveys tranquillity, dynamism, respect, abjectness? Does it give you a new appreciation of previously overlooked aspects of daily life? Does it reflect a fascination with human art or nature’s art? Does it capture a fleeting moment and freeze it for the viewer? Does it make a social comment or a comment on convention?

II. Analyze two-dimensionality and how it gives the effect of depth. Discuss…

A. foreground and background

B. use of the frame

C. perspective and use of perspective

III. Balance can be symmetrical or asymmetrical. Look at the use of…

A. Positive and negative space. An visual interest in negative space and its composition is a major principle of Japanese painting and photography.

B. Figure-ground relations. How does the artist compose the background as well as the major figures?

C. The rule of thirds = Place the horizon line one third or two thirds of the way down, not in the center. Place the most important objects one third or two thirds of the way across the image. Asymmetrical balance, achieved by the rule of thirds, contributes to variety and sharpening.

D. OR use classical balance = a centered subject. There is little dynamism in this compositions and it is used in ads that are supposed to appeal to the very rich, often seen in magazines like the NEW YORKER.

IV. Describe the lines. Find the single visual force that is the strongest. There are actual and implied lines. Is there implied directional movement (even a blur)? How do we read it, left to right, up to down? Analyze strongest parts of frame by quadrant.

A. Horizontals — Does or should the artist use the rule of threes in composition? Describe emotions elicited. Discuss placement of the horizon line in the frame.

B. Verticals — Describe the emotions elicited, which are often kinetic, urban, aspirational or authoritative

C. Diagonals give a sense of motion, inconclusiveness, or instability.

D. Shape = design element formed when lines close back on themselves. Commonly square, circle, triangle [often = family, holy family].

E. 3-d shapes = masses, which can only be distinguished from shapes by use of light and shadow.

V. Talk about how the lines and shapes lead the eye. Is there a point where the eye returns or temporarily rests? That is the point of emphasis, and good pictures achieve visual emphasis. Is there an emotion or narrative implied by that visual emphasis?

A. Emphasis = resting place for the eye. Eye returns there. Emphasis creates a center of interest.

1. Human form is most interesting thing in image.

2. Intricacy vs. simplicity. An intricate shape is sharpened when there is also something very simple alongside it; an extreme close-up may show the great intricacy of the texture of the most common objects [for examples, a close-up of all the colors in an oil slick glinting in the sunlight.]

3. Most textured area commands the most attention.

4. The foreground and the right, lower quadrant have more emphasis. The person in front always gets more attention than the person in back.

5. Emphasis comes from implied motion in the image. There are two kinds of eye motion.

a. One is around a geometric shape or back and forth along a line = graphic vector.

b. One is eye motion led by a figure in the content of the image that is going or pointing in a certain direction: examples are a car going in a certain direction, a person walking or picking up a forkful of food, or a glance in a certain direction = motion vector.

6. Humor, the spectacular, the unusual gain our attention. You need other graphic qualities besides these aspects, however, to make a good image.

VI. Texture = visual equivalent to sense of touch. Note kinds of words used to name texture. Texture calls up emotions more primitive than sight.

A. Note how lines together can become a texture with shadowing, grouping.

B. The photo may emphasize the 2-D surface. It may play with printed text or reflections of light or use unusual inserted material to do so.

VII. Contrast creates “sharpening” = more a rapid readability of the image.

A. Contrast of scale — Without this, more time is spent on mentally establishing the gestalt or creating closure, figuring out what the image is. Gestalt psychology assumes that viewers seek to create closure out of the available elements.

B. Contrast of shape

C. Contrast of color

D. Contrast of texture

E. Contrast of tone

Note contrast range in both natural light and light in photography, film, television — Low contrast, for example, on a gray day, may be related to a longer time in establishing closure in black and white pictures; it actually creates more saturated colors for color photography and video. Film captures a much higher contrast range than television or video, where the dark areas can easily become all black or the whites lose detail and “bloom.”

VIII. Unity — Line, shape, and texture create a unity in which the whole is greater than sum of its parts; repetition and parallelism are key to establishing unity. In any photographic analysis it is important to analyze the repetition of shapes and tones in the image.

A. Rhythm = repetition with alternation or repetition with progression. If you just had repetition of elements, it would get boring. An example of progression is a move from large to small versions of a shape; an example of alternation is a shift from light to dark and back again.

B. Motif = a repeated image or sound which reinforces a theme in the work as a whole, perhaps functioning as a symbolic element [e.g., the color red or romantic violins].

C. Redundancy = reinforcing an emotional effect or visual impact in a number of ways within an image or a film as a whole.

D. The image needs a tension between its unity and the kinds of surprises or tensions it contains.


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