The past brought to life

23rd January 1998 at 00:00
How can you and your class make the most of old photos? Gerald Haigh, offers some ideas

The Victorians were the first to keep a photographic record of their daily lives. The art of photography was developed in the mid-1820s and the pictures here and on pages 40 to 43, which are all around 100 years old, are fairly typical of what is available. But how can teachers use photos like these effectively as part of a lesson?

First, it is a safe assumption that even the most mundane photo will - after it has been subjected to close scrutiny and discussion by your class - address a wealth of issues across the curriculum.

Second, encourage your pupils to ask questions rather than provide them with answers.

Third, don't ignore a photograph because you don't know where and when it was taken. It can still contain information that you can use and that children can explore further.


It would be wrong to assume children see photos in the same way as adults do. Research shows that pupils bring stereotyped attitudes to all photographic images. Children often believe that the past was a dull, dark and misty place because that is how old photographs look. This assumption may lead pupils to think all black-and-white pictures are older than colour photographs, sometimes regardless of evidence to the contrary contained in the pictures themselves (they also think sepia photographs were taken some time after black-and-white photos were invented but before the development of colour film).

Researchers have also observed that if a photograph, however old, portrays something that is still in existence today - a local landmark, for example - some pupils have difficulty in placing it in the past. For them, the existence of the landmark will be enough to make it a present-day scene.

Underlying these misconceptions is the young child's difficulty in seeing a continuum that stretches from the past to the present. To many children, the past is a different place, unconnected with today. These problems of perception may vary between children of different ages and between individuals, but the teacher has to be aware that they can exist, and plan work accordingly.


National Portrait Gallery, London (0171-306 0055). Pupils can read and interpret portraits with education staff. Much of this applies to photos.

National Museum of Photography, Film and TV, Bradford (01274 725347). The education department has project packs, and is producing one on visual literacy. DISCUSSION AREAS

Use the photographs in thissection to promote classroom discussions. Items you can look at and talk about include:

* furniture and equipment; * desks in pairs with sloping writing surfaces; * inkwells, and the channels for pens and pencils; * the walls (compare them with your own classroom); * the blackboard (writing); * classroom lighting.


Remember, bring the picture to life. For example, in response to the picture of the adult measuring the child on page 39, set up two pupils, or an adult and a pupil, in the same pose, using whatever is available to represent the apparatus. Then discuss such points as:

* Does the child know what is happening to her?

* Does she know why it might be happening?

* How might she feel?

* What is her relationship with the adult? For example, is she afraid of the adult? Does she know the adult well?

* If the child steps down, what might she do next? Will she turn and say something to the adult?

* Is she the only one being measured? Or is there a queue out of sight?

* Do we measure children today? How and when? Who does it?

* Can we find any measurements of Victorian children to compare with the measurements of children today?

* What can we say about the child's dress? Is she wearing a school or institutional uniform, for example?

* Can we make a similar pinafore? Would you have it open down the back? If not, how might it fasten?

* Can you make some pinafores so pupils can experience what it feels like to wear them? Does it affect the way you move, or feel?

* How did the adult feel in a long skirt? If the pupils wrap and pin some material around them and then walk about, does it affect the way they move and feel?

* Arrange your own classroom in as similar a way as possible to some of the photographs in this section and then discuss the many differences with your pupils.

Turn your class into a time machine and visit yesterday Here are some classroom activities:

* Ask your class if the photographs were posed? How can they tell?

* Why might they be posed? (Victorians had to stand still for several seconds to allow for exposure time - if they moved, their image in the finished photo became blurred. Let pupils role-play and hold poses to illustrate various classroom activities. Is it easy, difficult or impossible to stay still? Also, the pose was thought necessary to give an impression of serious study. A "fun'' scene would have been thought frivolous and wrong.)

* Why is no one smiling? (In Victorian and Edwardian times, people thought it inappropriate to smile in posed photographs. The aim was to give an image of seriousness and gravity. Compare the overall classroom formality with the seriousness of facial expressions. There is a direct link.) * Compare the photos in this section with those taken recently in your own school.

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