More on Visual Literacy

Photographs have been thought to not lie. They were originally believed to be an absolute reflection of the truth. Unfortunately that is far from the reality of the matter. Photographs are quite perverse entities. According to Michael Lesy they are like “Tweedledum and Tweedledee standing at the crossroads in Wonderland, pointing in opposite directions, rolling their eyes and grinning fiendishly while Alice, as earnest as a historian, asks in which direction the truth, disguised as a white rabbit, went.”

Analyzing a photograph requires several different approaches. One must consider those elements from which the photograph is constructed. Stephen Shore refers to these as “Depictive Elements.” In his book, The Nature of Photographs, he lists four such physical elements. These are:
1. the frame;
2. the depth or flatness;
3. the focus;
4. time.

He then turns to those elements referred to as the “mental elements.” These include vantage point, contrast, use of color, intent, subject and a long list of potential elements. The second part of this is less strong and useful to me because it is so open. I don’t think things such as intellectual meaning or emotional intent should be constrained in their interpretation by setting up a rubric. The starting point of considering the depictive elements seems to work for me as a good way to approach each photo because it forces me to look closely and in a structured or organized fashion. This more intensive “looking” can then morph into “seeing”—seeing what the photographer saw and felt. I have said to students that the difference between a serious photo and a snapshot is that in each photograph the photographer has left maybe only a few, but they are still real, molecules of their soul.

Grammar provides the backbone of language. Without the discipline of grammar how would serious people communicate? There are certain writings that require precise and thoughtful attention to language. Treaties, patent applications, laws, medical histories, and many other similar things demand this sort of knowledge and precision. Perhaps it is unrealistic to gather a group of photographers who by their very nature are visual people and prefer to communicate by imagery, and then to demand of them that they write grammatically correct essays or letters. That is a separate issue.

It is reasonable and essential that those visual communicators understand the grammar or structure of what it is that they are doing. Becoming visually literate is just what it says—being a visual person who is literate. If you can’t evaluate photographic work how can you claim to be literate in your chosen profession? If you can’t evaluate photographic work how will you ever know that your work is good enough?

In Lesy’s essay regarding Visual Literacy he says that “no matter how mundane, utilitarian, or circumscribed a photograph’s origins may be, an image is not a sentence. Images are forms of sensory data, processed by the right brain. No matter how judicious and objective a historian fancies herself, a photograph will elicit projections and associations in her, stir her imagination, before she even notices what is happening to her.” He goes on to draw from the great teacher and photographer Minor White stating that a photograph “is a function, an experience, not a thing,” said Minor White, a mid-twentieth-century photographer whom Walt Whitman would have recognized as a fellow poet. “Cameras are far more impartial than their owners and employers,” White went on to say. “Projection and empathy [are] natural attributes in man. . . . the photograph invariably functions as a mirror of at least some part of the viewer.”

Lesy hastens to point out that most scholars of photography, especially historians, are visually illiterate. Photographs are photographs. Why learn to take pictures if one wants to do research in photo archives? To quote his essay further, “Depending on who is looking and when, an image changes its meaning: Look now, see a rose. Look again, see a butterfly. How can a scholar use the equivalent of a Rorschach blot to reveal anything except the state of mind of some viewer? Such fears will be allayed by the “workshop/critique” portions of a photo course. Built into a course’s curriculum are classes set aside for students to show their work and for others to respond to it. Because all work must be edited before being shown, students are obliged to look at their images from a critical distance before presenting them to others. Some workshop/critiques are as quiet as Quaker meetings. Some responses are as opaque as, “I liked that.” (Instructors always ask, “Why?”) Some critiques are self-referential monologues; some are diatribes. The best critiques are spirited conversations that engage the whole class. The worst are charades of mutual nonaggression.”

This sums up what a good critique should do for us. It should inform the photographer whose work is being critiqued what is good and what might be improved. This information can and should be communicated in a non-threatening manner. Using the workshop/photographic critique for a detailed analysis and grade by the instructor is a perverse application that makes the experience at least useless if not damaging to the student.

Having said this and taken a position on the critique, I also take a position on learning how to speak in an informed way about photographs. Learn the grammar, learn the words, and learn the components that go into a good photograph. Speak up, be heard, and create a foundation from which you can grow your own personal work be it practicing photography or studying the history of photography.

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Thumbs down on Liking a Photo

This morning I was reading an article that referred me to Japanorama and found this quote from Alfie Goodrich: “It’s about a year and a half or maybe a little longer ago that I snapped after visiting my Flickr stream and read – for the 1000th time – the words ‘great capture’… and it pissed me off.”

Alfie’s issue is that a photograph and its content are probably more deserving than just a click on the like button or some two word comment such as “great shot, great capture, too cool, “or some other minimal sobriquet. His hope is that by learning how to “read” a photo, to see the meaning of a photograph and express it, one can improve their own photos. Sort of makes sense, doesn’t it? I had the same issue when I was teaching photography classes that involved critiques. I had one word that was not allowed. Students could swear or curse or use any sorts of vulgarities regarding some aspect of the photograph, but they must not like it. I always told them if they liked it then after class they could speak to the photographer and arrange to purchase it.

Roberto Muffoleto who used to teach at ASU in Boone, NC, and now resides in Italy, organized a program in 2009 referred to as the VASA project. Not sure I recall what the acronym strands for, but it is an interesting site that has grown with time and much hard work. It states its vision as: “The VASA Project is an online media studies workshop connecting individuals and communities on a global scale who have interest in media studies, photography, digital media arts, and sound.” I have done two education workshops through VASA and they were both worthwhile. This month VASA launched its on-line magazine “Journal on Images and Culture.” The first two articles 1) The Future of the Image by Alan Shapiro and 2) Views on Visual Literacy by Rune Patterson are both intriguing reads.

Visual literacy is not a new topic, in fact it is quite rich in its history. There are rock art images that date back more than thirty thousand years. There are multiple definitions of visual literacy but it is clear that it consists of a group of competencies a human being can develop. According to the International Visual Language Association these include:
a. a group of vision competencies a human being can develop by seeing and at the same
time having and integrating other sensory experiences,
b. the learned ability to interpret the communication of visual symbols (images) and to create messages using visuals (symbols),
c. the ability to translate visual images into verbal language and vice versa; and,
d. the ability to search for and evaluate visual information in visual media. (Yeh HT and Lohr L. Journal of Visual Literacy, 2010. volume 20, number 2, 183-197.)

The importance of this ability, this concept, and its importance to their education has been difficult to impart to undergraduate photography students. In teaching History of Photography classes I would ask students why they took the class. Only a few liked history or thought that History of Photography would help them in their careers. Obviously all the photo students took it because it was required, the others because I had a reputation as an easy grader. I tried, I had them compare and contrast the photos of Grand Central Station made by John Collier and Annie Leibovitz in her Jones New York ad campaign. I tried to get them to appreciate the images in The Americans. Each time one or two would see the light. I learned a lot more about teaching than they did about visual literacy, but I have convinced myself that the effort was worth it. Many photography students complained that they were visual people, not verbal and the expectation of writing about a photograph was unreasonable. I think not unreasonable at all. In the article by Rune Patterson the relationship between visual and verbal information is stressed. Both are essential components of intentional communication. The study of the History of Photography, learning to “read” photographs, and to verbalize the analysis is an essential skill for the budding young photographer.

One of the most interesting aspects of this experience was that I tried to teach similar concepts to my history class and to a First Year Seminar class of non-photography students. Among the students not so anxious to go make images, the concepts were more easily grasped, more quickly assimilated into a construct of critical thinking, and then applied in a final digital story project. Perhaps in our zeal to teach the technology of modern photography we create a prejudice in our students that limits their interest in learning what their images mean. Reviewing images from Workbook or other sources, studying the history of photography, looking at the work of established documentary photographers and discussing it rather than just liking it will definitely make better, smarter, and happier photographers.

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American Senators Meet with Castro!

Big news this week! US senators visit Cuba and meet with President Raul Castro. The ostensible goal raul_webh_bwis to work for the release of Alan Gross, American citizen who was arrested in Cuba when discovered to be bringing in sensitive electronic communications equipment to assist a democracy promoting program of USAID. In short he broke Cuban law and was arrested. The senators ate at an “upscale restaurant in Old Havana,” always a dicey thing to do. In spite of all the difficulties with Cuba and our relationship with the country, the US is now the second largest source of tourists ranking just behind Canada. Food sales to Cuba increased by $100 million, making the US one of Cuba’s top ten trading partners. Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s assistant Secretary of State once referred to the economic blockade of Cuba as America’s dumbest foreign policy ever. So much of the issue with Cuba has to do with angling to get the Cuban Vote in America, a small part of the Latino vote that has traditionally gone to the Republicans until recently. Raul has been more open to allowing Cubans to purchase homes and cars and things like that. Last hear when I was in Havana a good friend of mine bought her first house. It was a huge step up for her and her family, all of whom had been living in a one room efficiency apartment for years. Working as a photographic assistant and guide she had amassed $15,000 dollars to make the purchase. That’s a veritable fortune for the average Cuban citizen.

Further evidence of the foolishness toward Cuba was contained in a statement from Cuban diplomats who pointed out that “even North Korea, which earned global condemnation when it conducted an underground nuclear test earlier this month, is not on the terror sponsor list.”(Paul Haven, Associated Press) The most dangerous thing in Cuba are the piles of rotting mangoes on the corners when they fail to collect the garbage on time! With large enough catapults they could wreak havoc on South Beach!mangoes

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Photography Books

Publishing a book. The goal of so many people in the arts, the sciences, and those who aspire to write. I was spurred on to go to Lystra Books after reading the piece by Nora Estheimer on TriArtSpark, a local arts and opinion site put together by Trudy Thomson. I have been thinking about books a lot recently. First, moving and packing them up and then having to unpack and put them somewhere (on wonderful built in book shelves done by Ed Ralston) made me more aware of their physicality. I vacillate back and forth between liking my Kindle and wishing I had a real book. Certainly in many cases there is not a great deal of difference between the cost of the physical book and its digital cousin, an excellent lesson in the value of intellectual property. The Kindle is useful for travel. Second, I have a project that I still don’t know what to do with that I finally made into a Blurb book. That’s not an end, but it is a initial step that hopefully will create some momentum for me.
I follow some websites and blogs using Google Reader, and this morning I happened upon a lot of book news. On Burn, David Alan Harvey had a “Letter from the Editor” that described what he had been up to and what he had planned for they near future (going to Dubai). He also talked about the efforts in the recent past and future plans for Burn Press, which will be a small, boutique like publisher of photography books. He is a smart person and his ideas usually come to fruition in even better form than planned, so watch out for this new outlet for photographic books. David’s ability to attract, inspire, and recognize young, emerging photographers is uncanny. On the Luminous Landscape site there is a nice article regarding Publishing Your Own Photographic Book by Peter Cox. Peter is a photographer from Ireland who aspired to publish a book of his landscape photography. He worked on a Kickstarter proposal, got it accepted, up and running and eventually raised more than $40,00.00 for his book project. This is a must read for any one seriously looking to self-publish their book. Roger May, documentary photographer from Cary (really West Virginia), who is making a book he has titled Testify with photos of the areas he relates to in Appalachia. You can find several articles relating to his experiences in doing this work on his blog.
For those who want some good instruction in laying out a book whether it is an e-book, print on demand, or a traditional book, Mat Thorn has some video webinars that are superb in providing the basics of book layout and design as well as editing and sequencing. They are also quite applicable to building a photographic web site. Sponsored by Blurb they can be found on Vimeo. Delving a bit deeper I found a very useful site called Photosecrets which is published by West Coast photographer Andrew Hudson. There he relates his experiences in the self publishing endeavor and is brutally honest in the estimate of costs and profits. He has worked very hard on his books and has self-published at least fourteen. Mind you, these are traditional books, not POD or print on demand books. This is a much different world of book publishing as compared to the print on demand type of thing.

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Roadside Memorials

Roadside memorials are different from grave markers, they denote the last place the person was alive, not where they ended up dead. “A grave site is where a body is laid to rest,” said Tim Himes, who erected a cross for a relative in a Rutter’s parking lot two years ago, “but this is where your soul is taken.” There are photographers who have documented these sites and others who have interviewed survivors to try to understand more about the purpose of these shrines. Lloyd Wolf, a Seattle photographer, has been documenting homemade shrines to victims of murder and violence in and around Washington. He writes, “I am compelled by their heartfelt vibrancy, their sadness and their all-too-common presence on the city’s streets. To me, the shrines — cascades of plush toys, balloons, handwritten prayers and reminiscences, flowers, T-shirts, liquor bottles, photographs, candles — manifest the secret, yet highly visible, wounded heart of a community.” Note that these are murder victims, not traffic deaths that he is documenting. Others have photographed roadside shrines presumably due to car accidents. I first saw these shrines in the mid 1990s driving in Mexico and then noted that they were becoming progressively more commonplace in the US. I did not realize that they would be so controversial a topic, but apparently they are. There was a “Room for Debate” article in the New York Times in 2009 that argued both pro and con this topic. I found the memorial in this photo in South Carolina one day across from a roadside vegetable sign where I had stopped for some tomatoes and peaches. I thought that the image contained a lot of obvious irony telling us how fatal indecision might be. While I am not a collector of such images, I am not above stopping for a picture now and then.

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