Eye on Image-Making: Visual Literacy

I had a few days to kill in Baltimore recently, while my wife attended a conference, so I decided to visit some of the city’s fine museums. As luck would have it, The Baltimore Museum of Art, which is adjacent to the beautiful campus of Johns Hopkins University, had an exhibition called “Looking Through the Lens: Photography 1900–1960.” My purpose in writing about this exhibition, which ended on June 8, is to begin a discussion — which I hope you will join — about visual literacy and the importance of visual images in today’s world.

“Looking Through the Lens” contained more than 150 images from master photographers such as Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Edward Weston, Man Ray, Max Burchartz, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Margaret Bourke-White, Dorothea Lange, Robert Frank, and Gordon Parks. The exhibition, using prints from the museum’s collection, was arranged by themes — beginning with pictorialism and ending with New York street photography and work by influential teachers at Chicago’’s Institute of Design. There was a heavy emphasis on photographers working in Europe and America during the period from about 1930 through the 1950s. Coincidently, it was these photographers — and their remarkable images — who most influenced me when I was learning about photography as a teenager in the 1960s.

A Special Time

What is it about the images produced during this time period that I found — and still find — so inspirational? First, the spirit of Modernism was in full flower, provoking a revolution in art, literature, music, architecture, and, of course, photography. In fact, it may be that photography came into its own as an art form — breaking free from its association as painting and drawing’s second-class cousin — because of its link with Modernism. Second, photography flourished hand in hand with urbanization and the rise — literally — of the world’s sky-scraping cities, particularly New York, where I grew up. Many images from this period glorify progress and show a fascination with things mechanical and constructed, or under construction.

Third, this was an era when photography, and especially photojournalism, mattered — when magazines such as Life and Look brought important work by top photographers into millions of American homes, and when the Farm Security Administration undertook a massive photographic project what would, ultimately, provide an invaluable documentary record of America’s shift from an agricultural to an industrial nation. Fourth, this time period was one of huge social upheavals — the rise of Communism and fascism in Europe, World War II — that resulted in a wave of migration to the United States, bringing some of the best and brightest minds of the 20th century to our shores. Many of these people made significant and lasting contributions to our visual culture.

Visual Literacy

Given this confluence of factors — and I am sure there are others — it is hardly surprising that visual imagery, and specifically photography, has become such an important and powerful form of communication. In fact, around the beginning of the era I have just been describing, the Hungarian photographer and educator Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, whose work was represented in “Looking Through the Lens,” made a statement to the effect that, in the future, an illiterate would be someone not without the ability to read and write, but someone unable to create and understand photographic images. Moholy-Nagy was the consummate modernist, drawn to things urban, mechanical, and industrial. A member of the Bauhaus group in Germany, Moholy-Nagy emigrated to England and then to Chicago in 1937, where he ran New Bauhaus, which later became Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute of Design. Here was someone who clearly understood and saw the need for visual literacy.

I wonder how Moholy-Nagy and other photographers represented in “Looking Through the Lens” would view the state of visual literacy today. Certainly, there would be wonderment and perhaps admiration for the ease with which we can create, view, and share visual images, including photographs and videos. There would probably be an appreciation for the pervasive dominance of visual images in all aspects of modern life, from movies and television to the Internet and iPhones. In short, we are awash in a sea of still photographs and moving images — they are our constant companions from morning until night.

But what of our ability to analyze and understand what we see? This is the flip side of visual literacy — it is not enough just to be able to create an endless stream of images; we must also know how to “read” them. My guess is that we would get low marks on that test. Despite the pervasiveness of visual imagery, most people undergo little, if any, training on how to understand and interpret such imagery. Compare this with the training most of us go through on how to understand and interpret the written word. Colleges and graduate schools yearly turn out thousands upon thousands of graduates who are familiar with the principles of literary analysis. But there are far fewer graduates, I am willing to bet, who are familiar with the principles of visual analysis — and a majority of these probably attended programs in either art history or film studies, rather than journalism or mass communications.

Does Visual Literacy Matter?

If you think this all sounds too academic, consider the role visual images play in the public’s ability to make sense of complex information — whether that is global climate change, the war in Iraq, the economy, or the U.S. presidential election. On June 3, I watched CNN’s election-night coverage of the remaining two presidential primaries. Both Clinton and Obama were photographed with throngs of enthusiastic supporters in the background. McCain, who was making what was billed as his first campaign speech of the general election, was shot against a green backdrop covered with slogans. Whatever the respective merits of each of the candidates, the visual image that McCain presented was clearly less vibrant and less appealing than the images presented by Clinton and Obama. Only time will tell if such imagery matters to the voting public, but if past elections are any clue — Ronald Reagan, Gary Hart, and Michael Dukakis come immediately to mind — it does.

There are many theories that try to explain how we make sense of what we see. In other words, how the physiological response to light striking our retinas is converted into something meaningful to our minds. Much work has gone into trying to understand how the visual images used in different types of persuasive communication, such as advertising, do their work — i.e., how they cause the viewer to change his or her attitude and behavior. Photojournalists, too, hope their images can be persuasive, can sway public opinion and move people to action. In our visual age, it would seem that visual literacy — which includes the ability to craft meaningful images — matters a lot. Consider the long history of neglect to the problem of global climate change. This neglect has many causes, but I believe the lack of impactful imagery that clearly communicates the risk of rising temperatures is key to understanding why the mass media has largely failed to impart to the general public a sense of immediate crisis.

A Case of Nostalgia?

How the photographers working during the Depression, World War II, and the 1950s would have visually interpreted global climate change or the war in Iraq is anybody’s guess. Compared to our current day, there were probably far fewer photographic images in circulation, but I wonder if those that were seen by the public — especially in magazines such as Life and Look — mattered more than the piles we blithely wade through each day. Is this merely a case of nostalgia for an era that barely intersected my own? Whatever the case, I am glad that my wife’s conference gave me a chance to get reacquainted with many of the giants of 20th-century photography and ponder the issue of visual literacy.


3 Responses to “Eye on Image-Making: Visual Literacy”

  1. David

    Some interesting thoughts.

    There are a number of businesses and individuals thinking through and coming up with systems on how to convey information visually these days. You mention climate change, war, economy as examples of information that, if combined with effective visuals, can be conveyed with much greater clarity.

    There is another layer of visual communication where information is generated and connections made called visual thinking. The idea is to use visuals to help people tap into what is below the surface and put complex ideas into a visual form where they can then be verbalized.

    My company uses photographs to accomplish this. The fotos have a way of eliciting info that doesn't come up in conversations without visuals present.

    We find that people using our visual tools are more effective when we train them to see the visual language (visual literacy) so that they can then question their clients in a way that reveals more info for the client.

    Check out the VizThink website for leads on what's happening in the visual thinking world. http://www.vizthink.com/

  2. Hi David,

    Is it your premise that today’s average observer would get low marks in visual literacy because their education in that topic is less than that received by observers in the 1930-60’s? If so, what basis is there for such a premise?

    With the abundance of visual skills imparted to the masses through every form of media it may well be that the “education”, albeit informal, might actually surpass what was provided to those observes living 50 years ago? Many people quickly learn what works, i.e., provides them a result that fits their intention through trial and error, applied learning from experience.

    What’s the difference that may be under the statement of “fewer graduates, … who are familiar with the principles of visual analysis -- and a majority of these probably attended programs in either art history or film studies, rather than journalism or mass communications” that you see between the visual literacy proficiency of the artistic studies versus the journalistic?

    For the benefit of discussion the following websites may be of use:





    My favorite book on the topic of how we see is:

    Ways of Seeing – John Berger

    Keep at it and stay well

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