Analyzing Visual Media


This lesson demonstrates and practices analysis of visual composition in photography and art. Discussion and implementation focuses on reinforcing the analogy between visual composition and written composition. When possible, students are encouraged to use art & design terminology as well as rhetorical terminology to discuss and analyze visual media.


This lesson presumes students have been exposed to rhetorical analysis terminology, art criticism basics, and vocabulary related to elements of art & design. Students have either notes from brief lecture or handouts from the teacher.

Wikipedia's Design Elements & Principles and Elements of Art provide simple overviews of each.

Day One

Students view and discuss Margaret Bourke-White's photograph "Louisville Flood Victims." The photograph should be projected or displayed for the entirety of the lesson.

Teacher prompts students 

"Use your 'Art Criticism' and 'Elements of Art and Design' notes as a guide as you make observe the following photograph. After you have written down your observations, formulate a thesis that clearly explains the photo’s argumentative intent. Support your thesis with specific details from your description and analysis notes."

During independent observation time, students should be encouraged to suggest a potential claim the argument makes and cite specific evidence for the claim.

Students then share and discuss their observations in groups of up to 5. Groups then choose one thesis from each group to share with the class as a whole.

Download: Bourke-White Analysis.pdf

Day Two

(This lesson originated in a high school fortunate to have a rich collection of framed, student-created artwork along hallways and throughout the Media Center. If a similar resource doesn't exist for another's implementation, teachers would need to provide potential choices for analysis.)

After reviewing the previous day's work on Bourke-White, instructor walks through the day's assignment. Each student will 

    1. Receive special hall passes that allow them to visit public areas freely for 40 minutes, take pictures of the art they've chosen, and have time to observe the details of the pieces they choose.
    2. Choose one work of student art in the building to write about.
    3. Take notes on the chosen artwork.
    4. Utilizing vocabulary of art elements and design, write a maximum of two paragraphs of analysis, citing specific evidence of the argumentative intent of the artist. 

Download: Student Art Evaluation.pdf

Follow-up day

Each student submits a typed copy of his or her analysis in large font. Students include their full names at the bottom of their analysis. The last step of the assignment is affixing the student analysis with scotch tape to the frame or glass of the piece being analyzed. The analysis is left up for at least a week for other members of the school community to read.

Depending on the students' need, the analysis may be submitted as a draft before the final submission.

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