Activity Group 3: Harper's Pictorial History of the Civil War

Exercise 1: Primary Documents

"Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated)" is a series of 15 prints based on the two-volume anthology published in 1866. To create her prints, Walker enlarged select illustrations and then overlaid them with large stenciled figures.

1. Look through all of the images in Walker's series. As you do so, note down at least 7 quick observations about what you see.

2. Write down some thoughts and predictions. What are you looking at? What does the primary source Walker is working with seem to be about?

3. Respond to these questions writing: Why does Walker choose a primary source from 1866, just after the end of the Civil War? How does she disrupt or transform the original primary source? And why do you think she does so?

Exercise 2: Harper's Pictorial History of the Civil War

As noted above, "Harper’s Pictorial History" is a book published one year after the Civil War ended in 1865. Harper's was a popular periodical from the nineteenth century that, like many of our magazines do today, pulled together commentary on a range of issues important to that time. Harper’s always included a variety of pictures, from cartoons to illustrations or drawings, that represented a particular scene, person or topic.

Since Harper's was published throughout the Civil War, it produced many pictures that represented history as it happened. But what did these pictures show to Harper's readers at the time? Did they represent slavery, and if they did, how did they represent it? What point of view shaped each picture?

1. Choose one of Walker´s images to analyze more closely. Write down observations about what you see. Ask questions and come up with one or two possible interpretations. You can use the dialogic journal format for this work, if you choose.

Exercise 3: Intervening in Primary Documents

News of current events swirls around each of us at this time. Images and pictures play large roles in how we understand what is being communicated to us. At times, we may look closely but at others, we may scroll quickly down a digital page, whether from a newspaper or from a social media platform like Instagram or Facebook. We consume countless images each day, many without really thinking much about.

1. Using Walker's "Harper's Pictorial History" as a prompt for your own exploration, look through a variety of news media, such as The Washington Post, The New York Times, or Fox News. In this exercise, we invite you to experiment with Walker’s methodology in relation to our current moment.

2. After looking through the various articles, choose an article and image that you want to think more about. Read through the article and do some close reading of this image, using the observation—question—interpretive possibility framework outlined here. Take any notes you see fit.

3. Next, consider what this image may leave out or what aspects of this image seem to be biased or represent a particular point-of-view. Write down and brainstorm possibilities.

4. Given some of your observations and thinking, how would you intervene in the image? What or who would you want to add? If possible, print out the image and actually experiment with drawing on top and over it.

Excercise 4: Final Reflection

After finishing your own intervention into the found image or picture from a news source, take a few moments to reflect in writing to the following questions:

1. What motivated you to choose this particular image? And what did you decide to draw and add to it?

2. How does your addition comment on or change the original image?

3. Finally, how does your annotation compare or contrast with Walker's strategies?


Reading Resources: Kara Walker was produced by Wendy Tronrud (A. R. T. Education Consultant) in collaboration with Art Resources Transfer (A.R.T.) in 2019-20.

A.R.T. acknowledges the invaluable generosity, assistance, and enthusiasm of all who contributed to Reading Resources production:

This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council.

We also thank:
National Endowment for the Arts
H.W. Wilson Foundation
Sikkema Jenkins & Co.
Mackenzie Salisbury
A.R.T. Board of Directors
A.R.T. Advisory Board
and most specially, Kara Walker.

Web programming by Document Services.
Copyright © Art Resources Transfer, Inc 2020.

All images are protected under copyright by the original rights holders.

A.R.T. is a 501(c)3 nonprofit.

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