The artistic decisions of the photographer (the formal elements) shape the way we look at and understand these works of art.Students can exchange ideas about people, places, and events, as well as understand the historical significance and personal relevance of photographs, by exploring the impact of the formal elements in the Teenie Harris and Picturing the City photographs and by experimenting with their own photographs.
Note: In order for students to explore photography, they do not necessarily need to take photographs themselves (especially if you do not have access to enough cameras.) Think about making a collage with reproductions of the Teenie Harris and/or Picturing the City photographs.
Teenie Harris had a photography studio where he took portraits of people. Compare several of Teenie Harris’s studio portraits to make observations about how he used props, lighting, and backdrops to pose his sitters.
Define portrait. Ask if students have ever had their portrait taken? (School photographs, for example.) What was that experience like? Did you like the results? Why or why not?
Create a studio in your classroom to experiment with different photographic techniques. Students can be both the photographer and the sitter for a range of photographs.
Set up stations to explore a variety of photography techniques, such as point of view, lighting, composition, subject’s body position/eye contact, etc.
Discuss definitions of these words, as well as their impact on the viewer. Use examples of Teenie Harris and Picturing the City photographs at each station to illustrate these techniques.
Print and share the photographs. What do students notice about their photographs? Were they successful in using the techniques?
What was the experience like to be a photographer? To be the subject of the photograph? Did the artist capture something about your identity?
While people, places, and events change over time, so do the technologies that we use to understand and exchange ideas about them. One important change in photography itself is the move from film to digital formats.
How has photography itself changed over time? How have cameras changed? What is a photographic negative?
How does photography fit into the world of art?
How does the time period that Teenie Harris documented (1930–70s) fit into the history of photography?
Have your students take photographs using a film camera vs. a digital camera. How is this experience different? Ask them to consider how the different technology affects their process and experience as the photographer/artist.
If you do not have cameras in your classroom, find out if your students can collaborate with your school’s newspaper or yearbook staff to use their cameras and document some aspect of school life for them to use in print.
A photographer’s decisions are never completely unbiased. There are lots of choices to be made such as: What is included? What isn’t?
You could make a comparison to painting. What choices does a painter make? How are these similar? What’s different? Why might some people argue that photography isn’t really art, that it is just capturing “real life?” Ask students to use Teenie Harris and Picturing the City photographs to defend the fact that a photographer makes interpretative decisions about what they’re documenting.
How is a photograph important as a historical document? What are the strengths/weaknesses of using a photograph to make inferences about historical people/places? How do we use photographs in our current lives?
What visual information is factual and what is interpretive? How does it reflect the photographer’s point of view?
Experiment with “viewfinders” to help students understand how the frame of the photograph can influence what is and isn’t seen by the viewer in the final photograph.
What more can we learn from multiple views that we cannot learn from just one?
What is different when certain information is or isn’t included?
If you have access to cameras, allow students to experiment by taking a series of photographs of the same place and/or same person from different perspectives. If you have a limited number of cameras, find ways to break students into groups and use this as an opportunity to practice sharing.
Teenie Harris was a staff photographer for the Pittsburgh Courier and he also had his own photography studio. Additionally he often captured what was going on around him because he always had his camera on hand.
Use examples to illustrate each of these various contexts for Teenie Harris’s work—newspaper photos, studio shots, and candids. You could also include examples from Picturing the City, and possibly students’ personal photographs.
Compare photographs taken for these different purposes.
Have students had their portrait taken?
Do they take photographs for the school newspaper or maybe were featured there?
Do they ever take photographs of their friends around school or hanging out? What are those experiences like?
How do these different contexts for photographs change how we understand them? How is a photograph different in a newspaper versus the museum wall? Or in a frame in someone’s home? How do our personal points of view change how we understand these photographs?
Compare a selection of Teenie Harris’s photographs of celebrities with some taken by the paparazzi (you could find some appropriate examples in magazines or on the internet). What are some contrasts you can make between the photographs themselves and how the photographers captured their subjects? What are the legal issues connected to photography?
Allow students to explore a selection of Teenie Harris and Picturing the City photographs and identify a few as favorites. Ask them to write about why they find each photograph compelling. They can also jot down any questions they have about the photograph.
Students could respond to specific prompts: What’s appealing? How did the artist draw your attention? What is the impact? How do these discussions help students understand the process of critique and analysis?