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I shoot film. A compendium of photographic films and resources for the modern photographer.

Visual Literacy

Posted February 17, 2015 by Aaron Brethorst

One of my favorite pithy statements is that words mean things. Too often, I believe that we neglect to consider that what we say and how we say it can have an impact on others and their perception of us, or even the world around us. Similarly, our photographs can and do mean things, in many cases without our intent. But, most often, it is our intentional creations that carry the greatest meaning. In thinking about this, I’m struck by Susan Sontag’s words in On Photography1 where she describes the nature of casual photographs: “an unassuming functional snapshot may be as visually interesting, as eloquent, as beautiful as the most acclaimed fine-art photographs.”2 I believe that Sontag is correct, however I must disagree with her about the nature of the word ‘snapshot.’ To me, a snapshot is a photograph captured without any intention, thought, or purpose beyond a simple documentary capture of the moment, whereas she seems to characterize snapshots as being the province of the amateur.

Facebook today stores more photographs than have ever been created on film. According to Mary Meeker, a venture capitalist at Kleiner Perkins, over 1.8 billion photos were uploaded to the Internet every day in 20143. It's not possible for every one of these photos to be good, but that is not to say that every photograph we post to Instagram or Facebook is inherently devoid of meaning. In his 1952 essay, Exploratory Camera, Minor White defended the value of the “miniature camera” from its detractors, saying “The [miniature] camera as a research tool brings the accident, happy or otherwise, into control,” contrasting it with the view camera, which “is more polite…[snatching] the moment of vision, [and giving] evidence of ordered thinking.” Notably, though, he did not excuse these differences as being a reason to create bad photographs: “These machine gun tactics are kept from deteriorating into sloppy seeing by disciplining every frame of a roll to the best the eye can see,”4 which is a sentiment that I think applies to all of our digital creations. Too many DSLR owners pride themselves on being able to fill a 64GB memory card with their cameras’ 7 frame per second (FPS) burst modes, only to consign thousands of nearly identical snapshots to the digital dustbins of iPhoto or Picasa, while iPhone shooters have the ignominious distinction of being able to create badly lit and poorly composed photographs of their dinners at up to 240 FPS. And yet, Instagram-snapped photographs have graced the front page of the New York Times at least twice5.

Much like in Minor White’s day, we shouldn’t dismiss a photographic method or medium simply because it’s different than what came before it. In fact, what surprised me the most about reading Exploratory Camera was that you could effectively substitute in “Instagram” or “Snapchat” for every mention of the 35mm camera, and the essay would be completely relevant and up-to-date. Despite the fact that I love creating photographs on film, I sometimes worry that I value cranking my camera’s film advance lever and agitating my Acros 100 in HC-110 1:62 just right more than I do creating photographs of worth. This raises two very relevant questions: first, what creates value in a photograph, and second, just what is a photograph, anyway?

An apocryphal story about Pablo Picasso relates of an occasion when a woman approached him for a drawing. He dashed out a scribble and told her it would cost $5,000. “But sir,” she sputtered, “it only took you a second to draw it.” “No madam,” he replied, “it took me a lifetime.” So perhaps one could draw the conclusion that value in art is determined by the amount of experience and skill possessed by its creator. But, that doesn’t seem right, especially given that many notable artists, like Van Gogh or Vivian Maier, were only recognized posthumously. A decomposing shark in a tank takes essentially no effort or skill to create, outside of the logistical skills necessary to acquire a dead shark and the chutzpah necessary to convince well-heeled art collectors that it is an ‘object of significance.’6 But yet, such an object can sell for millions of dollars! So, I cannot—in good faith—claim that the value of a piece of art, such as a photograph, is determined by its monetary worth or the artistic skill of its creator. Perhaps, instead, the value of art is determined by its ability to make us feel something.

When I stare at an Ansel Adams print, I am overcome by the beauty, majesty, and grandeur of the natural world; Edward Weston’s photographs speaks to the sensuous nature of the world around us; Alec Soth’s photographs speak to a sense of loneliness and adventure. Each of these artists make me feel something, which, I think, is what defines value in a photograph—or art in general—for me.

Having established a reasonable definition for “value,” let us turn our attention to the word “photograph.” In an untitled 1952 essay, Henri Cartier-Bresson defined photography as “the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.”7 It seems reasonable to also claim that photography is the act of creating a photograph, which—I believe—makes it safe to say that a (good or great) photograph is the end product of Cartier-Bresson’s definition of photography. Notably, nothing in that definition speaks to the method of creation of the photograph or the medium on which the latent image is stored, and nor should it. Much like White’s valiant defense of the 35mm format in the same year, I believe becoming mired in arguments about what constitutes a valid form of visual expression is unnecessary, tedious, and counterproductive to what should be every photographers’ true goal for new practitioners of their craft: helping novices discover the passion that they have already discovered, regardless of the exact form that the nascent expression may take.

We, as photographers, would be far better served helping the hundreds of millions of people with cameraphones learn how to better express themselves visually than we are bickering about Canon vs. Nikon8, film vs. digital, or miniature vs. large format. One of the best ways to help the typical photographer9 become better at our craft is by helping them become better at understanding the photographs they make and see. This process of understanding the content, context, and message of a photograph is referred to as ‘visual literacy.’ The definition of visual literacy that I find most understandable and directly applicable to my work comes from Hesford and Brueggemann, who describe it as being part of a “rhetorical triangle,”10 which asks its appliers to analyze an image in terms of the equally weighted concepts of “Subject/Content,” “Audience/Content,” and “Perspective.”

Hesford and Brueggemann describe Subject/Content as everything that appears within the image: the subjects; the contents of the frame; the use of color, light, and shadow; and the story told through the photograph. Audience/Content requests that you consider both the historical and cultural context in which the photograph was created, and the context in which the photograph is being viewed. Finally, Perspective refers to the creator’s framing of their photograph: what angle or perspective did they choose for their subject? What did they choose to include in the frame, and what speculations or inferences can you make about what they left out?

Reading photographs through a lens like the one described above gives us the ability to extract those oft-mentioned ‘thousand words’ from a photograph whether or not its creator gave any thought to how the photograph would be interpreted. Intentionality on the part of the creator assists us in properly placing a photograph within broader semiotic, cultural, and historical contexts, but we can read even a casual cameraphone snapshot. To take an example from the top of my Instagram feed, consider a photograph of an empty chair with a coat slung over the back of it, with a drink on the table in front of it. The subject matter the photographer has chosen to represent depicts an enjoyable experience. (I’m out and having fun with a friend!) The non-surreptitious angle that the photograph was shot at, and the color of the coat give us insight into cultural mores that apply to the photographer. (Consumption of alcohol is acceptable, as is being with a woman in public and taking photographs—unlike in some cultures, like Afghanistan under Taliban rule.11) Both of these suppositions are further underscored by the casual nature of the snapshot and its lack of intentionality. The photograph represents a pleasant event in the day-to-day life of the photographer, without him trying to make a broader political, cultural, or social statement. Although it’s far easier to infer the meaning and context of a photograph when the photographer metaphorically assaults us with it, even a snapshot can speak volumes if only we choose to listen.

  1. Speaking of Sontag, I’ve been looking for an opportunity to complain about her statement that “the person who intervenes cannot record; the person who is recording cannot intervene.” This is, in a word, bullshit, as demonstrated by the story behind Nick Ut’s famous 1972 photograph, retroactively dubbed Napalm Girl, where he took the photo, and then rushed the young girl to a hospital in Saigon, simultaneously saving her life and changing American discourse around the war. Sontag was clearly aware of the photograph, given that she mentions it on page 18 of On Photography

  2. Sontag, Susan. “On Photography.” (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), 103. 

  3. Meeker, Mary. “Internet Trends 2014.” Accessed from: KPCB S3 Bucket 

  4. White, Minor. “Exploratory Camera: A Rationale for the Miniature Camera.” Aperture, 1, no. 1, 1952. 

  5. First in 2013, and then again at the end of January, 2015

  6. I feel better about Damien Hirst if I pretend that he is a performance artist whose work centers around bullshitting rich people. 

  7. Cartier-Bresson, Henri. Ed. Traub, Heller, and Bell. “Education of a Photographer.” Allworth Press: New York, 2006. p. 21 

  8. Not to mention that the obvious answer is, in fact, Fuji. 

  9. In other words, someone equipped with a cameraphone. Ironically, as I wrote this part on my iPad while sitting at a bar, the person two stools down from me kept taking photographs of their sushi on an iPhone with the built-in flash. I’m sure their photographs look terrible, and will never be paid any heed after the initial flurry of Facebook or Instagram likes dies off. 

  10. Hesford, Wendy and Brueggemann, Brenda Jo. “Rhetorical Visions: Reading and Writing in a Visual Culture,” Prentice Hall: Upper Saddle River, NJ. 2006 

  11. See Lynsey Addario’s “It's What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War” for more on this. 

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