Photography: Picturing People: Lesson 1



The advent of photography in the nineteenth century brought with it new opportunities for members of the growing middle class to have portraits made. Posing for a portrait, once reserved for artists’ models and wealthy patrons, became a part of broader modern experience. Over time, increasingly portable cameras enabled photographers to capture images of people outside of studio settings, introducing unique views of everyday people in candid moments of daily life.


  • Students will look at and compare photographs from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
  • Students will consider conventions of portraiture such as pose, expression, and gaze.
  • Students will consider composition and framing.


  • As a class, develop a collective definition of the word portrait. Ask your students to propose reasons why people sit for portraits. Ask your students if they have ever sat for a portrait, such as a school photograph. Did they do anything special to prepare for the photograph, perhaps through their choice of clothing or hairstyle? How did they pose for the camera? What kinds of facial expressions did they make for the camera? What was the setting for the photograph? Ask your students to imagine someone discovering their photograph in the future. What might this future person learn from the photograph? What questions might they have?
  • Invite your students to reflect on the different reasons why someone might pose for the camera. How might someone’s body language suggest that he or she is posing or aware of the camera?



William J. Shew: Untitled (Mother and Daughter), daguerreotype, 83×70 mm, c. 1850 (New York, Museum of Modern Art); courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New YorkWilliam J. Shew: Untitled (Mother and Daughter), daguerreotype, 83×70 mm, c. 1850 (New York, Museum of Modern Art); courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York


  • Ask your students to look at the image of Untitled (Mother and Daughter), by William Shew. Do not tell them the title right away. What details do they notice about the body language of the two people pictured? What about the way they are dressed? What can be determined about the setting? How has the photographer composed and framed the figures? Based on their observations, ask your students what they can infer about the relationship between these two people.

In 1839 Louis-Jaques-Mandé Daguerre officially announced to members of the French Academy of Sciences and the Academy of Fine Arts a miraculous invention he had developed for making pictures. For the first time, through a mechanical and chemical process people could see their likenesses captured on the silvery surface of a daguerreotype. The direct, positive image of a daguerreotype is formed when a light-sensitive plate is exposed to light through a camera lens. Light is central to this image-making process; the word photography, as coined by Sir John Herschel in 1839, is a combination of the Greek words for light (photo) and writing (graph). Without a negative from which multiple prints can be made, each daguerreotype is one of a kind. Because their light-sensitive surfaces will be damaged by further exposure, daguerreotypes are protected with a sheet of glass and are often encased in leather-bound wood, lined with dark velvet. Producing a clear portrait requires prolonged stillness from the sitter, so daguerreotypists in the nineteenth century equipped their studios with devices that held people’s heads and backs in place.

  • Ask your students to hold a pose in their seats for twenty seconds, the average length of time it took to make a daguerreotype when this portrait was made. Based on this experience, ask your students to consider how the process played a role in how the subjects are posed in Mother and Daughter. How does the preservation and presentation of daguerreotypes differ from photographs they are familiar with today?
  • Invite your students to propose reasons why portraiture was such a popular subject of daguerreotypes, based on their own experiences. Why might images of oneself and one’s family be considered so important, especially during that time in history?


Henri Cartier-Bresson: Alicante, Spain, gelatin silver print, 259×359 mm, 1968; printed by Pictorial Service, Paris (New York, Museum of Modern Art); courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New YorkHenri Cartier-Bresson: Alicante, Spain, gelatin silver print, 259×359 mm, 1968; printed by Pictorial Service, Paris (New York, Museum of Modern Art); courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York


  • Show your students the image of Alicante, Spain, by Henri Cartier-Bresson. Ask your students how the poses in this photograph differ from the poses of the women in Shew’s daguerreotype. Ask them to describe the body language and facial expressions of the subjects. From what angle was the photograph taken?
  • Inform your students that the title Alicante, Spain refers to the city on the eastern coast of Spain in which the photograph was taken. How might the choice of title reveal the context or reasons behind the photograph?

Cartier-Bresson originally trained as a painter, but by the time he took this picture (in his mid-twenties) he had abandoned painting in favor of photography. Influenced by Surrealism, Cartier-Bresson rebelled against his bourgeois upbringing and embraced spontaneity and life lived on the margins of society. After a year in West Africa, in 1932 Cartier-Bresson embarked on an intrepid path with his camera, traveling through Europe and Mexico. Alicante, Spain, like many of Cartier-Bresson’s photographs from this period, presents a sympathetic and provocative image of people he encountered during his travels. In a mysterious performance, the three figures seem to have spontaneously posed for the camera.

  • Ask your students to consider how Cartier-Bresson’s role as photographer differs from Shew’s. In what ways do the purpose and meaning of Alicante, Spain differ from Mother and Daughter?

Alicante, Spain is among the early photographs Cartier-Bresson made using a handheld Leica, a portable 35 mm camera. "It became the extension of my eye," he wrote, "and I have never been separated from it since I found it. I prowled the streets all day, feeling very strung up and ready to pounce, determined to ‘trap’ life—to preserve life in the act of living. Above all, I craved to seize, in the confines of one single photograph, the whole essence of some situation that was in the process of unrolling itself before my eyes."[Henri Cartier-Bresson, "The Decisive Moment", in Sand, The Mind’s Eye, 22.]

  • Give your students five minutes to write about the scene "unrolling itself" in Alicante, Spain. First, ask your students to describe the characters and what are they doing. Then ask your students to include this scene in a larger story. What happened before? What will happen next?


1. Freeze!

For this improvisational activity ask three volunteers to assume the poses of the people in the photograph. Start the activity by saying "Begin scene." Give the students two minutes to improvise dialogue and action, starting from the first poses. At the end of the two minutes, say or have one of your students say "Freeze!" at which point the three students must stop moving and stay still until three more students take their places. Continue the performance until everyone has participated. At the end of the exercise, ask your students to reflect on how the original pose influenced the collective narrative they developed. What stories or actions emerged?

2. Face Off

Ask your students to consider the genre of portraiture as a means of personal expression today in online social networks such as Facebook. Divide your students into teams, and ask them to defend or refute the idea that Facebook would be as popular as it is without the photographs that accompany members’ profiles.

3. Parts of a Whole

A fragment of a larger scene, Cartier-Bresson’s photograph Alicante, Spain is intriguingly ambiguous. Ask your students to take inspiration from this enigmatic quality and find an excerpt from a text that describes a person or people in action at a particular moment in a narrative. The text can be fiction or nonfiction, but the excerpt should not include any explicit references to names and should be no more than one hundred words in length. Collect the texts, and then invite your students to choose at random from everyone’s selections. Ask them to create an image based on the text they chose. The media and materials they use can be as simple as drawing or may extend to photography and collage.

4. Magnum Photo

In the wake of World War II, fifteen years after he made Alicante, Spain, Cartier-Bresson joined Robert Capa, George Rodger, and David "Chim" Seymour to co-found the photographic agency Magnum Photos. Send your students in partners on a Web Quest to research the following questions at, the agency’s rich, image-filled Web site: What were some of the reasons why these four photographers created Magnum? How did they establish more freedom for photojournalists? What does it mean that Magnum is a cooperative? Ask them to present one photographer whose work they discovered on the site (listed under Photographers) to their classmates. Students should give a brief summary of their photographer’s work, explain why they find the work interesting, and highlight one of his or her portfolios or photographs.

Go to Lesson 2: Unposed →

Grove Art Online: Suggested Reading

Below is a list of selected articles, which provide more information on the specific topics, discussed in this lesson.

Photography: Picturing People