Sample Image Analysis Essay

How to Write a Picture Analysis Essay

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It is widespread today to post pictures on the internet forums and social networks. Recently, it has become pretty popular to disseminate photos from different parts of the world; photos which describe some important event there, or merely the way of living of the local people. The main goal of this process of dissemination is to convey a given message to wider audience, and also to give more information about a subject. Regrettably, people just post these pictures or share them, without even an attempt to reflect upon their message, background or event which has been captured. As a matter of fact, it is impossible to render the reality in an absolutely perfect way, so every picture, painting, or video shows only one side of it. Therefore, a picture shows the world from one personal point of view. This is your starting point while writing a picture analysis essay. 

How to write a picture analysis essay - 6 essential tips

  1. Focus your attention on the author of the picture. Who is he/she? What is his/her field of interest? Does he/she have any artistic achievements and fame? This information will help you to analyze the context of the picture better. 
  2. What is the context of the picture? when and where has it been taken? Explain a little about the temporal and geographic dimensions of the picture. This is pretty important because, otherwise, your interpretation may be wrong or inadequate. A lot of “false” images are circulating in the World Wide Web, and they lack reliability and trustworthiness exactly because of this misplacing or distorting the information about their context. This is true especially when the pictures are related to war crime allegations. Hence, you should be certain that you have gathered all the required information. 
  3. Think about what you see on the picture. There can be one human being or more than one, or just a landscape, or an abandoned house, or an animal, and so forth. The best pictures are usually those which combine various elements, thus enforcing different impressions on the mind of the observer. 
  4. Now is the time to grasp the message of the picture. Professional photographs always aspire towards disseminating important information, or changing the attitude of people towards a definite issue. Social, political and economic issues are mostly referred to. Here you need to analyze the picture against its background; if you know where it has been taken and who is on the picture, then it will be much easier for you to understand it. 
  5. During all this preliminary research it is recommended to have notes in order to write your thoughts and insights. Now, let’s talk a little bit about the structure. You have to be able to incorporate the following things in your text:
  •  context
  • author of the picture and its source/s
  • description of the picture
  • techniques used by the photographer
  • message of the picture
  • reaction to the picture; for example, some pictures depicting war action, poverty, disasters as well as some positive images (of friendliness, equality, happiness) can provoke strong reaction from the society.  

       6. After completing the first draft of your essay, consult with your friends or classmates regarding your task. Ask them what they think about your essay and the picture. Maybe they will point you to                something on the picture that you haven’t been able to notice yourself. Remember: an advice given by your friends should only help you make your paper more objective and informative. Do not                  plagiarize!

If you have doubts about the way how to write a picture analysis essay, we can say that it is absolutely up to you and depends on your own style of writing. At any rate, what you need is to practice your imagination, and to collect the necessary information. Then your essay will have value and impact.

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September 2006

On my page on “Examples of Critical Reading,” I write that critical reading “means asking
what we can learn from the way the author selected and arranged facts the way she
did.” The same is true of images, only we look for the selection and arrangement of visual elements, rather than facts.

Here are three examples of critical readings of images. Note how in each case the critic asks what choices the creator made about what to show and what to omit.

Sarah Luria Reads a Portrait

Analysis of Edward Savage, “George Washington holding a plan for the capital city,” 1793

Source: Sarah Luria, Capital Speculations: Writing and Building Washington, D.C. (Durham, N.H. Lebanon, N.H.: University of New Hampshire Press; University Press of New England, 2006), 25-27; image from “Washington: Symbol and City,” Blueprints 9 (Winter 1991).

“A portrait of George Washington with the plan for the Federal City, engraved in 1793 by Edward Savage, shows how the delineation of a new and grand city lent credence to the image of Washington as ”King George” while celebrating the originality of Washington”s vision and its power to bend nature to his political design. The plan is presented as Washington”s brainchild . . . he calmly gazes into the magnificent future prescribed by his design and echoed by the open sky in the background. While Jefferson gazes in adoration upon the classical past, Washington is equally transfixed by the future—he appears even to be looking at his city, already built. It is there, he can see it, and we are invited to see it too. This confident expectancy is further suggested by the way Washington supplements the classical past, as represented by the column. He turns his back to it and yet subsumes it by the uprightness of his posture; he becomes a pillar himself of the future state. Contrary to Jefferson”s dark view, this portrait suggests that it is no crime to have ”the vision thing.”

“The inevitable success of this vision is suggested by the rest of the engraving, which points to the power of the mind to turn nature into art: flowers are transformed into the floral motif on the chair, drapery, lace cuff, hair ribbon, and bow resting upon the plan; they are echoed even in the petal-like quality of Washington”s hair. The flowerlike bow, hovering over the plan, hints at how nature inspired the radiating intersections of avenues. The engraving further imposes Washington”s very person upon the land itself: the Eastern Branch follows the course of his knee, his fingers are compared to the avenues, his pants buckle serve as a template for the city blocks—the very paper of the plan, then, becomes a landscape that bends in Washington”s hand.”

Peter Bacon Hales Reads a Photograph

Analysis of Jacob Riis, “Hebrew Master Ready for Sabbath Eve in a Coal Cellar”

Source: Peter Bacon Hales, Silver Cities 314-315; image from San Antonio Public Library, “Jewish Experience in the Americas,” http://www.sat.lib.tx.us/JETA/photography.htm (27 August 2006).

Jacob Riis, Hebrew Master Ready for Sabbath Eve in a Coal Cellar

“Photographs such as ”Hebrew Master Ready for Sabbath Eve in a Coal Cellar” manipulate the inherent democracy of the lens and the flash illumination; the eye is forced to pick its way from object to object, to choose between a challah loaf and a shovel, a dirty coat and a sign in Hebrew. Because Riis seems not to call attention to any one particular element in the photograph, he gives the impression of total disengagement and absolute objectivity.

“Riis often used his framing to accentuate this quality. In this photograph, the seemingly arbitrary placement of the right-hand edge (cutting off one figure and leaving only a pair of disjointed hands holding a shovel) combines with the overall tilt of the frame to give an unsettled look to the picture. In fact, this picture is so carefully composed and utterly purposeful that it demands that ill-formed appearance. That shovel must be in the picture, for it signals the inappropriateness of the coal cellar as a dwelling. We are, apparently, watching a devout Jew interrupted from his devotions by the rude work around him. To include more than the hands of the shoveler, however, might detract from the presence of that lone human figure; it would also decrease the symbolic force of that shovel. The loaf of bread, close to the center of the frame and carefully separate from the other details of this man”s meal, serves graphically to emphasize the religious nature of this moment.”

Roland Marchand Reads an Advertisement

Analysis of various ads from the 1920s and 1930s

Source: Roland Marchand, Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, 1920-1940(Berkeley;
Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985), 260; image of Peerless Motor Car Co. Ad, c. 1927, from The History Project at UC Davis, Roland Marchand Collection, http://historyproject.ucdavis.edu/ic/image_details.php?id=437(23 May 2010) Though this particular image does not appear opposite the quoted text from Marchand”s book, it is similar to the images that do.

Peerless Motor Car Co. Ad, c. 1927

“The economic transformation of ”village America” hardly devitalized the American village as a visual cliché in advertising. Like a lingering ghost-image, the idealized American small town, with its connotations of unity, neighborliness and comfortable human scale, became a sight more familiar to Americans through the advertising pages than through their direct experience. . . .

“In most advertisements, the village appeared as part of the background rather than as the focus of attention. Often it was no more than a stylized miniature. Still, it helped evoke an atmosphere and contributed to a conventional perception of the American landscape. Certain stereotyped characteristic can be observed even in the most minute versions of this visual cliché. Almost invariably, the idealized village contained a single spire that towered above the other buildings . . . The houses of the town were grouped closely together, with the steeple or spire roughly in the center. Almost never did another prominent building appear–except in close-up illustrations of the main street with its bank, general store, and perhaps a gas station and movie theater. Grain elevators, mills, and other evidences of processing or production for export were virtually non-existent. If a highway entered the town, it usually followed a gently winding course.

“These tableaux did not present idealized American villages as nostalgic images of the past. Although often stylized in appearance, these villages purported to represent part of the current landscape that consumers would experience while using the batteries, motor oils, tires, auto accessories, soaps, telephones, and other products featured in the ads. As they viewed repeated images of these pristine eternal villages, readers could find assurance that, despite the advance of awesome and impersonal skyscraper cities, their society still retained the qualities suggested by ”village America.””


For more examples of image analysis by historians, see the sections on maps, photographs, advertisements, and cartoons at “Making Sense of Evidence,” History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web, http://historymatters.gmu.edu/browse/makesense/

Portrait of Washington by Edward Savage

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