Documentary Photography and the Photographic Essay


Informational Content: Students will draw on visual material to derive an understanding of how documentary photographers work to record contemporary history.

  • Documentary photographers record life and conditions in the places they visit and work.
  • A photographic essay is a series of photographs which attempt to do one or more of the following: reveal, inform, entertain, persuade, or compare and contrast
  • The variables with which photographers work include subject, place, time, perspective, detail, background, light, and focus.


  • Documentary photographers record history and express a point-of-view . Complete objectivity as a historian is difficult or impossible and it may not be desirable.


  • Analyzing a photograph to discover how its effect is influenced by elements like composition, light and perspective


The following pages are a representative selection from the New Deal Network series of photographs by Rondal Partridge. There are about 70 photos in all, divided into categories (Migrant Youth, Contract Labor, On the Freights, High School Youth, Hanging Around, Mechanization, Youth on Relief, Hitch-hiking, Lockheed Employment, and Aircraft Vocational Schools).

The images and text may be downloaded and reproduced. Photos should either be projected onto a screen directly from the computer, downloaded and photocopied onto acetates so that they may be projected for class use, or photocopied onto paper for each student to see.

[Note: The following links will take you to pages in the Rondal Partridge feature piece. To get back to this page, please use the "Back" button on your browser.]


  1. Sitting on a Sack of Potatoes
  2. Digging Up Potatoes
  3. Li'l Fellers
  4. Helping a New-Comer
  5. In the Roseville Switch Yard
  6. Speed Burner
  7. The Student Body President
  8. Negro and White Youngsters
  9. Hanging Around the Store
  10. Movie Theater
  11. Navy Recruits
  12. Skillful Young Man
  13. A Professional Job of Thumbing
  14. Line Outside the Lockheed Plant
  15. Boys Training as Maintenance Men

Background Information:

  1. Migrant Youth in Potato Field
  2. Contract Labor
  3. On the Freights
  4. Hanging Around
  5. Mechanization; the Agricultural Employee
  6. Youth on Relief
  7. Hitch-Hiking
  8. Lockheed Employment
  9. Aircraft Vocational Schools


At first, the activity should be presented for the whole group with the teacher leading (Steps 1-7). After that, small groups or individuals might look at photographs and discuss or write their responses to them.

  1. Project the photograph Helping a New-Comer. Allow several minutes for the students to look at it.

  2. Use the information from On the Freights to inform students about the historical context of the photograph.

  3. Begin the class discussion by asking students what they see. Make notes about their observations on the chalkboard or on a chart.

  4. Ask, "What seems to be the mood of the photograph?" Encourage students to determine whether the photograph seems to be emotionally neutral, upbeat, or somehow troubling or depressing. Ask for reasons for their assessments.

  5. Hopefully, students will agree that the photograph is upbeat. The "new-comer" is being helped aboard the freight car by someone who is probably a stranger. This is cooperative and encouraging. Partridge has frozen a critical moment in the action of boarding a freight car. The car might even have been moving at the time the new-comer jumped up to board. Students will most likely agree that jumping aboard a train looks like something that is fun to do. The image is of the beginning of an adventure, or of a new leg of an adventure in progress.

  6. Next, explain that Rondal Partridge is a documentary photographer , and that he selected this particular photograph out of many to be part of his series about youth during the era of the American Depression. This series may be considered a photographic essay.

    Now, you might ask students what they think is the work of a documentary photographer and what a photographic essay is. Elicit responses which lead to the following understandings:

    The work of documentary photographers like Partridge is to record life and conditions in the places they visit. Some seek only to report on life and work styles, while some want to move others to action based on the conditions they see and record in their photographs.

    A photographic essay may try to accomplish in pictures any of the things a written essay may try to do in words: reveal, inform, entertain, persuade, compare and contrast, or, as Aldous Huxley said, to say "almost everything about anything."

  7. Explain to students that the series of questions, "Questions to Develop Visual Literacy" will help them develop skills they can use to become better readers of visual information. At the same time, it will help them to think about the pictures they take of others.

    As time and your own goals allow, students might discuss these together as they proceed, or they may write responses to them and then discuss them later. You might want to post the questions on a chart or reproduce them on paper so that they may be used again.

  8. During the next session, repeat Step 7 with several of the other photographs in the series. You may choose to do this as a whole class activity, a small group activity in which different groups each have a few photographs to examine, or as an individual activity in which each student looks at a different photograph. Use the information (pages #16-24) to flesh out background for students.

  9. After students share their responses to the photographs, discuss Partridge's choice of images for this series.

  10. As a follow-up, students might choose a topic of interest and make photo essays in groups or as individuals. Students might want to consult some of the following resources for inspiration and instruction:

    • Davis, Keith. The Photographs of Dorothea Lange. Kansas City, Missouri: Hallmark/Abrams, 1995.
    • Frank, Robert. The Americans. New York: Grove Press, 1959.
    • Glubok, Shirley. The Art of Photography. New York: Macmillan, 1977.
    • Weegee. Naked City. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1945, 1973.
    • Paul Strand. New York: Aperture, 1987
    • Sandler, Martin W. The Story of American Photography. Boston: Little, Brown, 1979.
    • Turner, Robyn M. Dorothea Lange. Boston: Little, Brown, 1994.

Questions to Develop Visual Literacy
  1. Where did your eye go first? Then where? And after that? Think or write about why this happened.

  2. Would you describe the picture as simple or busy? How does this affect the journey your eye took in question 1?

  3. Where is the light coming from? How can you tell? If this is an outdoor photograph, what time of day might it be? Which are the brightest parts of the picture? The darkest parts? How do the answers to these questions about light affect the mood of the picture?

  4. Which parts of the picture are sharply in focus? Which parts are softer or out of focus? How does this affect the way you look at the photograph?

  5. Look harder at the photograph. List some of the details you might not have noticed at first. Include information about people, places and things and nature, including the climate or the weather.

  6. How do the answers to question 5 help you know where and when the photograph was taken? What do they tell you about the people in the photograph?

  7. Where is the photographer? Is he or she above, below or at the same level as the subject of the picture? Is he or she near or far away? What kind of information do you get because of these things? What kind of information might you get if the photographer were closer up or further away?

  8. Keeping all these things in mind, if you had to write a caption which expressed in one or two sentences what this picture is about, what would you say?

  9. In your opinion, why did the photographer want you to see this picture?