Museum Classroom: Photo Analysis

Lesson: Photo Analysis
Topic: Local History and Museums
Sub-Topic: Using Photos to Interpret the Past
Grades: 4-12

Preliminary Discussion: Source Material

Our history comes from a wide variety of sources. Most of it is from the written word, some from physcial 3-D objects called ‘artifacts’ but more and more photographs are becoming vital to our understanding and sharing of history.

An important part of interpreting these sources is questioning them. It’s important for us to poke holes in what we think about the photo to make sure we think critically. This helps to prevent misunderstandings and myths from formulating into true historical narrative.

Here’s an example to practice:

STCM S1997.1.19.61.b

Questions for analysis to consider:

  • Consider the subject of the photo: are there any clues about the location of the photo; who is in the photo?
  • Consider the context of the photo: are there any clues that reveal the time of day or season in which the photo was taken? Are there clues that reveal the year the photo was taken?
  • Consider the photographer: who took this photo and why? What is the purpose of this photo?
  • Consider the photograph: what is included in the frame of the photo and what is not included in the frame of the photo. Might there be other activities or people that were purposefully excluded?

This photo ran in the St. Catharines Standard newspaper in 1997 with the title “On Peeping Terms.” The caption that went along with the photo provides some answers to the questions above, but also reveals why it is important to question information found in the media and in the collection.


“Sara the farm cat isn’t sizing up dinner at Bert and Jennifer Dimmers’ poultry barn in Ridgeway yesterday. The eight-month-old feline is used to wandering through the different pens without harming the birds, including these one-week-old Muscovy ducks”

At first glance, it seems as if this grey cat is picking its next meal. However, the caption read alongside the photograph gives us a fuller story and more information to help us interpret what we are looking at in the image. It turns out, the kitty is more of a friend than a foe.

Activity: Photo Analysis

Using the questions above, consider the below photos individually and craft a narrative from your assumptions. Then, read through the interpretation of the photographs at the bottom (match photo number to description) to see if you’re correct!

STCM 1974.168.6

STCM S1938.57.1.3

STCM 2520-R

STCM S1937.98.5.2

STCM 2006.77.1450

STCM 1066-N

The ‘Garden City’ docked at Port Dalhousie, c. 1910
STCM 1974.168.6

The Great Lakes steamer ‘Garden City’ is docked at Port Dalhousie in 1910, ready to move passengers between Toronto and the many tourist attractions of Lakeside Park. This photo is an indication of the popularity of water-travel, even in the last, dying days of the ship building industry on Lake Ontario in the early twentieth century.

Construction of the QEW-Henley Bridge, 1938
STCM S1938.57.1.3

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The intersection of new and old transportation networks is on full display during the 1938 construction of the new four-lane Henley bridge. Built across 12-Mile Creek and the old route of the Welland Canal confirmed the automobile as the preferred mode of transportation.

Morningstar Mill, c. 1900
STCM 2520-R

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Often the first commercial industry to pop-up in a community, mills, like the Morningstar Mill, were vital to the establishment of communities like St. Catharines as the beginning of the nineteenth century. Contemporary observers frequently credited access to water-power as the life-blood of our local economy and manufacturing industry, one of the strongest in Ontario between 1840 and 1910.

Swimming Lessons at the YWCA, 1937
STCM S1937.98.5.2

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Water has an important place in recreation and leisure, as well as sport and competition and learning to swim is often an important (and sometimes scary) rite of passage. This group of young swimmers learning their front stroke was photographed in 1937 next to the pool in the old YWCA once located on Queen Street.

Lock 3 of the Old (Second) Welland Canal, 1953
STCM 2006.77.1450

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Snapped on December 3, 1953 from the Glenridge Bridge, this image is a reminder of the historic importance of water in our community. Within 10 years of this photograph, the remnants of Lock 3 of the Second Welland Canal (1845-1887), would be filled in as a part of the construction of Highway 406. Even at the time of this photograph, time has not been kind to the old canal with gates either rotted or lost altogether.

Shickluna Shipyards, c. 1864
STCM 1066-N

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It’s hard to believe that this image depicts downtown St. Catharines circa. 1864. Photographed at the height of production, Louis Shickluna’s Shipyard was the foremost ship builder on Lake Ontario. Access to labour and water of the Welland Canal, along with a ruthless work schedule, credit Shickluna’s success. Shickluna had two ship yards, this one located on the west bank of Twelve Mile Creek, just south Lock 3, and another adjacent to Lock 4.

Wrap Up: Discussion

So, how did your analysis go? Were you close to the same narrative that we have? Or did you discover something else or find a new question that changes the photo altogether? We find new information and our questioning reveals new narratives every day. In that way, history is an ongoing process that can change and develop as we study it.

If you have some questions or other narratives you discovered in your analysis, feel free to share them in the comments.

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