What is Visual Literacy and What Does It Mean For Photographers?
I am a big believer in Visual Literacy, and how it combines with context to provide highly intense imagery.
First of all… what is Visual Literacy?
“The term “visual literacy’ was first used by the writer John Debes in 1968 (1968). Messaris (1995) defines visual literacy as the gaining of knowledge and experience about the workings of the visual media coupled with a heightened conscious awareness of those workings. Visual literacy includes the group of skills that enable an individual “to understand and use visuals for intentionally communicating with others” (Ausburn & Auburn, 1978: 291). Visual literacy is what is seen with the eye and what is ‘seen’ with the mind. A visually literate person should be able to read and write visual language. This includes the ability to successfully decode and interpret visual messages and to encode and compose meaningful visual communications.
Visual literacy involves developing the set of skills needed to be able to interpret the content of visual images, examine social impact of those images, and to discuss purpose, audience, and ownership. It includes the ability to visualize internally, communicate visually and read and interpret visual images. In addition, students need to be aware of the manipulative uses and ideological implications of images. Visual literacy also involves making judgments of the accuracy, validity, and worth of images. A visually literate person is able to discriminate and make sense of visual objects and images; create visuals; comprehend and appreciate the visuals created by others, and visualize objects in their mind’s eye. To be an effective communicator in today’s world, a person needs to be able to interpret, create and select images to convey a range of meanings.”
— Dr. Anne Bamford,
To me, visual literacy is the understanding of how visual media works to influence the viewer. A photograph that is not persuasive, interesting, mysterious, or lacking in any sort of meaning is not that interesting to me. They can be, of course, lovely images of something or someone… but if they are meaningless snaps of documentary imagery, I am probably going to smile and wave.
I have spent my life in commercial photography. And I have photographed towels, machinery, food, real estate, fashion, and still life. I made a small fortune shooting garage door openers. I kept food on the table making images of hot dogs and canned hams.
Those photographs were not visual representations of some mythological meanings, they were meant to entice someone to buy that brand of damned hot dog. Or garage opener.
But even then we had to be visually literate, visually astute. There were things we needed to do to create an influence over the buyer to make them want to engage with the company.
What is the first thing you look for when photographing a hot dog? The twist on the end of the hot dog where the wrap comes together. Bad wrap, no shoot. When we would shoot hot dogs, we would receive cases of them and go through them one by one to find the absolutely perfect twisted hot dog end. We would make the hot dogs look hot, juicy, and add condiments at just the right level as to make it look appetizing, but also make it look like the hot dog is king.
We knew that perfection was needed and that is part of visual literacy in the commercial photography world.
As we get to art and editorial photography, what I look for is the depth of the image to provide emotional hooks or metaphorical imagination.
This highly emotional image is created by the photographer’s understanding of context, visual space, cropping, and the shared experiences of the viewers.
The man stands in the middle of the image, cropped at the knees helping to diminish him. He is leaning as if a bit infirm. The crowd behind him could be seen as threatening, and on the periphery, there is a dog standing in what could be seen as a threatening position. These ideas come from the shared experiences we all have with this sort of situation. The photographer mines the contextual situation for an emotional response.
In fact, the crowd is not involved with this man at all, he is simply waiting to be put in a police wagon for a minor offense.
For more on Josef Koudelka.
The “Surfland” portraits by Joni Sternbach represent a beautiful example of visual literacy. In the images, Sternbach uses classical composition, old camera and processing techniques, and the shared experience we all have with “vintage” photography. Knowing that we do not expect to see images like this of contemporary surfers make the images even stronger. Using a very large 8x10 camera allows for a very shallow depth of field, while also presenting the subjects in absolute focus. The film holder marks on the corner give the image a timeless look. Additionally, the warm tone of the traditional silver print creates what we perceive as an old photo of contemporary surfers.
For more on Joni Sternbach.
Do you know what color schemes work together to provide a feeling of comfort to the viewer?
That’s visual literacy.
Do you know how to use negative space to create drama or energize a specific part of the image?
That’s visual literacy.
Can you create a sense of power or majesty with a product on the table through lens choice, lighting, and composition?
That’s visual literacy.
In this photograph, I used the darker foreground leading to the brighter background to provide a metaphorical walk from the darkness. The tree bones give a stark design against the warmth of the background. Using the cool warmth of the slot canyon and the yellows of the fall foliage in the canyon frame the blue sky and balance out all of the design elements within the photograph. The small green leaves on the bottom left give the canyon a bit of life against the bare sandstone walls. I knew that some postprocessing would be necessary as the walls of the canyon became quite dark in exposure. Keeping the depth of field deep, I was able to bring in the texture of the yellow tree and the far side of the canyon wall. My choice of a 28MM lens helped give me more DoF as well as create a stronger leading line through the canyon wash.
The wry smile of the young woman makes us wonder what she was thinking while glancing out of the hallway and through the large glass windows. Her eyes are dramatically pulled to the right side of the image while her chest points leftward. I desaturated the Levi jacket and juxtaposed the roughness of the cloth with the smooth face and neck of the model. Adding fancy, dangling earrings make us wonder where she is going? We know as a shared experience that dangling earrings denote a less casual affair, while the Levi jacket denotes a much more casual situation. The framing of her face in the center of the photo gives it a classical feel as well. Shallow depth of field provides a soft background behind her sharply focused face. Choosing a long lens. in this case, a 100MM gave the face a bit of compression as well as let me drive the focus to her eyes.
Visual literacy means you can discuss images on a non-technical plane while still holding technique in high regard. No matter how much we want to ignore the technical aspects of photography, they are intertwined with the use of cameras, lenses, lights, and postprocessing styles. And the choice of each tool you use should be driven by a particular visual reason.
Choosing artificial light over natural light is a visual choice. The opposite is true as well. Everything from lens choice to ISO can make a difference in your image.
Thinking through the ways of making an image is one of the hallmarks of a professional. We clean cameras, recharge batteries and make sure the gear is ready to go.
But we must also be able to decide what the image is going to do for the viewer. We make choices on the visual presentation to add mystery, metaphor, interest, and engagement. And we do that by using our visual literacy.
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Until next time…
I am a photographer, designer, and photo editor. You can find me at my self-named website or at Project 52 Pro System where I teach commercial photography online. This is our tenth year teaching, and it is the most unique online class you will find anywhere.
You can find my books at Amazon, and I have taught two classes at creativeLIVE.