Photograph Analysis

Studying photographs can be like studying a short story. You see the main, dramatic events, but if you really study a photograph you will uncover even more to the story than you realized. Historians learn to study photographs in order to gain as much information as possible. This information helps them piece a story together and form the best possible explanation, (who, what, where, when and why) of the photograph. Look at the photographs in the folder. Choose one photo you would like to study. Follow the steps below to learn as much as you can about your photograph.

In addition to exploring the photogrpahs through the questions below, students can also learn about the construction site hazards Capitol workers faced and how workplaces have been made safer through the  “Dangerous Work Conditions” activity sheet attached below.  Students write the dangerous conditions they see in the photographs and write suggestions for how to make the working situations safer.

Student materials

PDF icon analyzing_capitol_photographs.pdf50.83 KB
PDF icon exercise_-_dangerous_work_conditions_.pdf166.77 KB


  1. Observe

    Take a few minutes to look at your photograph. Notice as much as you can about the main events and obvious information the photo gives. This initial impression will be the big picture you will come back to after studying the photograph in depth later.

  2. Who

    Now it is time to start recording what you see. Study the people in your photo. Can you tell if they are male or female? Do you have any idea what their job may be? Are there other people in the photo as well? Do they seem to be working together, or are they working independently?

  3. What?

    Can you tell what’s going on in the photograph? Is there a main event that is taking place, or any action that is central to the photograph? Can you infer (understand) what just happened or what might be about to happen? Are there any safety issues you see?

  4. Where?

    Describe where the photograph was taken. Was it taken outside or
    inside? What parts of the Capitol building are visible? What kinds of natural
    environment are shown? Do you see any other buildings in the background?

  5. When?

    Study the photograph for clues about when the photograph was taken. Can you
    tell what time of day it is? Does the photography help you determine what
    season of the year it was taken? Does the photograph appear to be taken before
    construction of the Capitol began, during the intermediate stages of construction,
    or near the end of the construction project?

  6. Why?

    This step can sometimes be hard to figure out. One way to help you determine
    why the photograph was taken is to focus on the main event of the photo. What
    do you think the photographer was focusing on? Do you think it was the
    people? Do you think the event or the items in the photograph seem to be more
    important than the people? Does it look like the photographer was taking candid
    shots, or do the people in the photograph seem to be posing?

  7. Conclusion

    It’s now time to draw some conclusions explaining your photograph. You have
    studied your photograph in great detail, and have gained as much information as
    you could regarding who, what, where, when and why of the photo. Using the
    information gathered above, write a paragraph explaining your thoughts about
    the story behind your photograph. Use your notes from above to assist
    you. Include as much detail as you can to support your findings.

Minnesota State Capitol, Early Stage of Construction, June 15, 1896
Minnesota State Capitol, NW Corner, Foundation Work, August 31, 1896
Minnesota State Capitol, SE Corner of the Foundation, Stone workers shaping and setting stone blocks, August 31, 1896
Minnesota State Capitol, Sub-basement, Concreting the Sub Basement, September 19, 1897
Minnesota State Capitol, Stone Cutters creating the Cornerstone, 1897
Minnesota State Capitol, NW Corner-stone shed and marble yard, April 30, 1898
State Capitol during construction
Minnesota State Capitol, SW Corner First Floor, Marble Hoist and Worker on Cable, October 28, 1898
1899_Minnesota Capitol building with a street car in forefront
Minnesota State Capitol, Double Arches, East Side Entrance,  June 1, 1899
Teamsters hauling State Capitol marble blocks, October 1, 1899
Minnesota State Capitol, Senate Dome Iron framework, October 1, 1900
Minnesota State Capitol, Scaffolding over Main Entrance, May 1, 1900
Image 2-note on the back of the photograph
Capitol construction site showing a ladder made out of a tree trunks and lumber
Minnesota State Capitol, Ironworkers working over Senate Chamber, September 1, 1900
Minnesota State Capitol, Senate Dome Iron framework, October 1, 1900
Minnesota State Capitol, Dome, Iron framework and iron workers, 1901
1901/6/1 Advertising on fences SW corner Capitol construction
Cass Gilbert standing before a partially completed State Capitol Dome
Stonecutters carving ornate capital
Minnesota State Capitol, Stone Shed, Stone Carving, Eagle Statue, n.d
Minnesota Capitol Building, Marble Eagle hoisted into place, October 12, 1901
Nils Nelson (probably) supervising setting one of Six Virtues statues
Setting the Six Virtues Statues, Minnesota Capitol Construction
Minnesota State Capitol, Capitol Steps, West Approach, August 28, 1902
Minnesota Capitol Building, Powerhouse, Iron beams, August 28, 1902
Minnesota State Capitol, Powerhouse and workers, n.d.
Setting column in Capitol rotunda, April 4, 1904
Minnesota State Capitol, Arch Support inside Rotunda, April 16, 1904
Minnesota State Capitol, Laying Guastivino Tile, Interior of Dome, n.d.
Horse-powered quarry crane
Babcock-Wilcox Quarry, view of the stone quarry work site
Babcock & Willcox Quarry Blocks and Workers, 1912
The Amicalola Quarry Train that moved the marble for the Capitol on the first leg of it's journey to Saint Paul