Children see the world through their unique lens. Their innate creativity and innocent imaginations give them a pure perspective on the world. But in the era of smartphones, I wonder if the artistic language of photography—line, color, texture, balance, lighting—is being lost. Do children know that photography goes beyond selfies and Instagram filters? Do they understand what makes a quality photograph? Do they realize that a photograph can move people to action? The following three books address these questions and show children the history, power and beauty of photography.
The Bluest of Blues: Anna Atkins and the First Book of Photographs by Fiona Robinson
Author Fiona Robinson tells the story of photography pioneer Anna Atkins in The Bluest of Blues. Raised by her scientist father, Anna Atkins developed a love for the natural world early in her life. She became a collector of flowers, ferns, insects and shells. In her early 20s, Anna began cataloging her collections and dedicates herself to creating a herbarium with thousands of dried botanical species. She wanted to share her work with the world, but she didn’t have a “quick, accurate way to copy her collection” until she was introduced to the cyanotype print. Using its chemical reaction process, Anna started to document her collection and later published what is considered the first book of photography. As a lifelong lover of sun prints, I love using this printing process with my students, but I have always stumbled when attempting to explain the chemical process. Robinson’s blue watercolor and pencil illustrations provide a strong foundation for students’ forays into cyanotype art.
- Nature Notebooks—Charlotte Mason, a British educator who lived around the time of Atkins, believed that children need to observe nature and record their observations in a notebook each day. Make or order blank books for your students. Explain that for the next few months, they are going to be observing nature and recording their observations through drawings and notes. In my experience, colored pencils and watercolors work best for nature drawings. Set up a nature table in your classroom with shells, pinecones, magnifying glasses, rocks, dried flowers, botanical books, etc. Create a few pages in your own nature notebook to show students. As time allows, take students outside and let them spend time observing and sketching. When students come inside, let them look for answers to the questions (there will be many) that arise from their time spent outside.
- Cyanotype Prints—Provide students with the opportunity to emulate Atkins by creating their own cyanotype prints. Purchase chemically treated sun paper at an art or photography store. I like to have enough paper for each student to create multiple prints. Ask students to bring in one small treasure from home. Gather buttons, old keys, blocks, jewelry, plastic letters and other small objects. Before beginning the project, take students outside and let them collect leaves, acorns, flowers and rocks. (I have classroom ferns and ivy plants and their leaves work well.) Let students spend time designing their cyanotype and then put them in the sun for five minutes. Come back in and soak the prints in water. Hang the cyanotypes up around the classroom to dry and then let each student pick out one of their prints to contribute to the class book.
This is My Eye: A New York Story by Neela Vaswani
Neela Vaswani’s story of a young girl living in New York City is told with photographs “taken” from the girl’s perspective. “My dad says it’s not what you look at—it’s what you see,” she says at the beginning of the story. From there, the photographs on each page illustrate the city’s subway stations, rainy days and people as seen through a peephole. Vaswani’s powerful photographs and spare text offer a glimpse of what it’s like to be a 9-year-old living in New York. Storytelling through perspective photography can be a tough concept for children, but this is the perfect gateway for classroom photography projects.
- Figurative Language—This book is filled with figurative language. Briefly review personification, similes and metaphor, then read the book again and write down the examples of each on three sheets of chart paper. Print several photographs of cities and show them to students one at a time. Let students write their own sentences with figurative language to go along with the photographs. After they have composed several sentences, ask them to write their favorite on an index card. Hang each photograph on the board or bulletin board and let students come put their index card around the photograph that it describes.
- City Stories—As a class, discuss the meaning of the sentence, “Walls tell stories and stories are everywhere.” Encourage students to talk about the stories they see in the coordinating photographs. If possible, use Google Earth to show your students images of murals in your city. Using the Socratic seminar method, have a class discussion about the stories behind the murals and what they symbolize. If there are not enough murals in your city, use historical or interesting local buildings. My 4th graders and I did this exercise and the students were so interested that many of them did further research and shared their findings with the rest of the class. Inquiry-driven local history at its best!
- Camera Walk—Write the phrase, “It’s not what you look at, it’s what you see” on the board or a piece of chart paper. Give students time to think about the meaning and then reread the book. Assign partners and then take students on a walk around the school’s campus. Their mission is to take 10 photographs while keeping the phrase “it’s what you see” in mind. Upon return to the classroom, give students time to write sentences to go along with their photographs. Extend the project by asking students to take photographs around their homes or in the local community. Have them email you the photographs and then share these with the class.
Dorothea Lange: The Photographer Who Found the Faces of the Depression by Carole Boston Weatherford and Sarah Green
Dorothea Lange knew from a young age that she wanted to be a photographer, and she became one of the leading photographers of the 20th century. But it wasn’t until she was in her late 20s that she had an awakening and realized that “She was meant to photograph people—not just the wealthy but from all walks of life.” Her newfound purpose led Lange to document the reality and suffering present around the country: breadlines, migrant workers, internment camps. She was focused on sharing reality and considered herself “a storyteller with a camera.” Insight into some of Lange’s famous photographs and her social activism led my students to have discussions about the power of photography, and they began to understand that a photograph is indeed worth a thousand words.
- Historical Context—Lange’s work is best understood in historical context. Spend time discussing the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, migrant workers and internment camps. Read aloud portions of Children of the Dust Bowl: The True Story of the School at Weedpatch Camp by Jerry Stanley, Children of the Great Depression by Russell Freedman, Blue Willow by Doris Gates and Write to Me by Cynthia Grady and Amiko Hirao. For older students, study primary sources including maps, song lyrics and posters. Using their new knowledge, ask students to write a first-person journal entry as if they are a child of the Dust Bowl or Great Depression.
- Visual Literacy Lange considered herself a “storyteller with a camera.” Show students a few of Lange’s most well-known photographs including Migrant Mother, Breadline and Dust Bowl Refugees. Give students the tools they need to “read” the stories in these photographs. Let them practice by filling out a Reading Photographs graphic organizer.
- Compare Photographers—Lange knew she was meant to photograph people. Read Antsy Ansel: Ansel Adams, A Life in Nature by Cindy Jenson-Elliott and Christy Hale, Polka Dot Parade: A Book About Bill Cunningham by Deborah Blumenthal and Masha D’Yans, and Gordon Parks: How the Photographer Captured Black and White America by Carole Boston Weatherford and Jamey Christoph. Each of these photographers felt called to a certain type of photography. Look at examples of their photographs. Create a four column T-chart comparing and contrasting their lives and works.