Notes from the VisCom Classroom: The Tables Turned

I had the tables turned on me a few weeks ago. Instead of being behind the camera asking the questions, I found myself on a TV set, commenting on photographs and the art of photography. OK, this was for a local cable channel, not the CNN Situation Room. But it seemed prime-time to me.

The occasion was the Visual Literacy Festival, a program of Richland School District One in Columbia, South Carolina. The festival consists of six individual contests throughout 2008 and 2009. In addition to photography, there are contests for editorial cartoons, computer technology video production, puppetry, and book production.

Entries come from both students (K–12, plus adult/community education) and faculty of Richland School District One. Joint student-faculty projects are accepted. The work entered represents class projects designed to advance the district’s instructional objectives. In other words, the work must be related to an instructional activity and not produced solely for the contests.

My gracious host was Ida Thompson, the district’s director of instructional technology services. She had invited me to discuss some of this year’s entries in the Visual Literacy Festival’s photography contest. Thompson is a seasoned pro in front of the camera, but I am a mere novice. Thank goodness this was taped and not live!

After a few minutes spent looking over the photographs we would soon be discussing, it was “lights, camera, action!” The 2008–2009 Visual Literacy Festival brochure defines visual literacy as “the ability to create, interpret and appreciate images and video in ways that advance thinking, decision making, communication, and learning.” The photography contest had six categories: black-and-white prints, color prints, black-and-white digital, color digital, hand painted, and photo essays. In addition to a grand prize, there was also an award for creative excellence, sponsored by the law firm of Nexsen Pruet.

The Object of Discussion

I teach visual communications and writing at the University of South Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. I am accustomed to asking my students questions and having them provide the answers. Because I have designed the course assignments to fulfill certain specific learning objectives, I feel on firm ground when it comes to leading a critique: What kind of lighting is being used here and why? What is the effect of foreground framing? How does this photograph convey the illusion of depth?

But now, as I said, the tables were turned. Thompson was asking the questions, and I had to come up with intelligent answers. The cameras were rolling! The microphone was on!

But here is the wonderful thing about photography—there is almost always something to discuss. The mere act of photographing something turns it from an object into an object of discussion. The photographer Garry Winogrand may have had this transformative process in mind when he said that he photographed things to see how they would look when photographed.

Objects we would pass by on the street without a second glance become fascinating when photographed by the right photographer. If I brought a bell pepper into one of my classes for discussion, the students might well assume I was playing a practical joke. But a photograph of that same pepper, done by a master such as Edward Weston, would probably provoke a lively interchange about the qualities of light, the meaning of mundane objects, the nature of art, and a whole host of other topics.

Question the Assumptions

I find it especially instructive to question the assumptions we bring to photographs. We talk about depth and texture as if these were objective qualities—but of course they are illusions. Photographers give their images a sense of depth by using various types of perspective, including converging parallel lines and diminishing size relationships. Photographers give their images a sense of texture by using hard light coming from the side to rake across a rough surface and create many tiny highlights and shadows.

By carefully examining these and other sleights-of-hand, my students begin to understand how they, too, can become illusionists. Some of the photographs Thompson and I discussed on TV used these very same illusions. Which means the photographers who took them were thinking, not merely snapshooting.

Another assumption we bring to photographs is that we can know something about what lies beyond the borders of the image. Can we peak beyond the corners of a photograph? Of course not. What happens outside the frame is literally out of the picture. But this doesn’t quell our temptation to imagine. And photographers have various ways—lighting, depth of field, where the subjects are looking—to suggest the world beyond the image.

The photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson is credited with coining the term “the decisive moment,” one of photography’s most famous phrases. There is an instant, according to Cartier-Bresson, when everything comes together perfectly within the viewfinder—the arrangement of subjects, the play of light and shadow, the scene’s emotional apex. By implication, the decisive moment creates the perfect image, which should never be cropped or otherwise altered.

This Is Important, That Is Not

Similarly, when a photographer decides to include certain elements in a composition and exclude others (the world beyond), he or she is telling us where to focus our attention—this is important, that is not. But just as we can’t help but wonder what the scene looked like a moment before or after the decisive moment, we may also be curious about what was excluded from a particular composition.

The grand-prize winner in this year’s Visual Literacy Festival provoked just such curiosity. Shot by high school senior Kelly Nelligan, the photograph shows an old, battered, overstuffed chair resting peacefully next to the shaded side of a building. The chair is in the foreground, but the leading lines of the building’s siding lead us to a sunlit patch of bright yellow near the top of the frame.

As I discussed the image with Thompson, I realized that the photograph was about a private, half-hidden world—represented by the chair—and the world beyond, represented by the bright sunlight. If only we could peak around the corner of the building and go from shadow to light! But we are confined by the photographer’s insistent voice and vision—this is important, that is not.

Visual Literacy

My 15 minutes of fame rushed by, and before I knew it Thompson was delivering her polished wrap-up and thanking me for appearing on the show. I managed to get in a plug for the journalism school and then the microphone went dead and the camera was turned off.

I have used previous columns to write about visual literacy—how important it is in today’s world to be able to analyze and think critically about the visual images we encounter every day. We spend many hours of classroom time teaching our students how to extract meaning from what they read. But I suspect we spend a fraction of that time teaching them how to extract meaning from what they see.

As a photographer, I was delighted to view and discuss some of the photographs from this year’s Visual Literacy Festival. As an educator, I was overjoyed that Richland School District One is promoting the concept of visual literacy to its diverse body of students and faculty.

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