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Thursday, September 7, 2023

On Visual Literacy

There is a school of thought, largely among the low-rent photo-academics that I so enjoy making fun of, that visual literacy is a thing, a thing which can be learned, ought to be taught, and so on. They say supremely stupid things like "one can read a photo just like a novel" and so on. This is one of those ideas that feels immediately kind of stupid. It gets a lot of its traction because of this, it's a strange but true idea that lets dummies imagine they have access to secret knowledge.

Let's dig in!

The first thing one might think about, if one asked oneself seriously "what is visual literacy actually" is that perhaps it's just about seeing things. A photo, of the sort one reads with ones visual literacy is generally just a picture of some stuff. Perhaps one could just read the stuff?

I am nearly certain that this is never what is meant. To be honest, I'm not 100% on this since these guys never explain what they actually mean, but I'm pretty sure.

Nope, visual literacy is specifically about the photo. It fits into that narrow gap between just looking at stuff, and just looking at a piece of paper with blotches on it. It's about decoding the photographer's methods and choices. What did the photographer choose to represent here, when, and what techniques did they apply to render the stuff they're photographing?

At this point even a moment's thought reveals that there cannot actually be any secret knowledge here. Suppose the photographer carefully applies Methods to make the subject look heroic, or venal, or whatever. If this doesn't actually come through to the ordinary citizen, if the sensation that the subject is venal or expensive or whatever does not come through to the untrained eye, the photo has failed. This isn't like a novel, where you're assuming that the person holding it can read the language. We don't encode things in a photo using a system of signs that one learns in school.

Yes, there are signs and tropes that get used, but they're culturally ubiquitous. A low angle and dramatic lighting to make the dude look heroic, or threatening, or whatever? Sure. That's totally a thing. It might be a bit of biology, it's definitely a lot of culture, but the point is that the great unwashed masses who didn't go to your stupid MFA program can read it just fine. They read comic books too.

Visual literacy, if it means anything at all, means that one notices and inventories ones own responses to a photo. The advanced course might conceivably teach us how other cultures, other people, might respond, so that we can imagine their responses and inventory those as well (wait, this sounds a lot like Molitor's theory of criticism, huh.) There cannot be anything interesting about our responses, those must be universal. The literacy arises in that we notice them.

The trouble we run in to immediately here is that we have trouble separating our reactions to the photographic methods and tropes from our reactions to the content itself.

As a critic, I don't see much point in separating those. I am interested in the total effect of the photo on me, and on other people. Trying to comb apart the lighting techniques from the content isn't something I am much interested in.

It is, however, of central importance if you're trying to do visual literacy and decode the Language of Photography or whatever. You can't just be reacting to the content, that's not visual literacy that's just looking at stuff. So, the visually literate academic weirdo has to pretend they're reacting to the way the photo is made, rather than just the contents of the frame.

Case in point, Jörg Colberg's more or less unhinged critique of Helmut Newton.

The underlying drama here is that Colberg is a prude, and also believes that Men should not photograph Women, ever, and especially not Nude Women. Which, you know, ok. He's perfectly entitled to his opinions here, and these are not even particularly odd ideas.

You can, however, see him muddling up the content and the method, constantly. Newton's photos are sexist and misogynistic not because it's a dude photographing women with their clothes off, but because somehow something something male gaze. Colberg flatly refuses to admit that his beef is that dudes shouldn't photograph women with no clothes on, and so he wanders endlessly around saying ridiculous things like "In a most obvious fashion, Newton’s world is entirely heterosexual."

Not only is Colberg somehow gleaning the sexuality of a nude woman from the photo, which is itself pretty suspect, but Helmut Newton's photos are famously some of the gayest shit ever! It's all flirting with sexual fetishes. We do not in these enlightened times think of gayness as a fetish, but in Newton's time it absolutely was. The Fetish/Gay/Camp blend was 100% a thing, and Helmut Newton was a master of it, if not the master.

Colberg goes on to argue that Newton's photos are "sexist and misogynistic" because it's obvious that they are and if you dared argue that they weren't, well, your argument would also be "sexist and misogynistic" and therefore wrong. Q.E.D. I looked this up in my Logic 101 textbook, and I think we formally refer to this syllogism as Modus Dumbass.

Anyways, this is pretty much a perfect case study of some dude who earnestly believes in visual literacy and earnestly believes that he has more or less mastered this arcane art, and that he is therefore qualified to offer us a "reading" of Newton's work. He sees himself as diligently decoding the dense thicket of symbols encoded in Newton's photographs, to reveal to us the inner meaning.

I don't even much like Newton, but I don't think there's any inner meaning that you need special training to decode. The magazines who commissioned Newton's work would likely be surprised and upset to learn that special training was necessary to make sense of that work. It is as if The New Yorker commissioned 2500 words on dogs, only to receive a manuscript written in Latin.

No, Newton is pretty much all surface. It's all fetishistic and sexy, in a sort of blunt and dated way, and that makes Colberg extremely uncomfortable.

Is it "sexist and misogynistic" to represent women as powerful but also sexual, and also kind of pervy? Maybe? That seems to me like a cultural judgement that's gonna give you different answers in different times and places. Ultimately, I don't particularly care. I am interested in the total effect of the photo, content and method combined.

There's nothing wrong with noticing and inventorying your reactions to a photograph. I do it as a hobby. The difference, as near as I can tell, between simply looking at a photo with your eyes open and visual literacy is that the latter tries, fruitlessly, to separate content from method, to catalogue in some meaningful the reactions to method separately from content.

Invariably, the reaction to content bleeds in, and the whole effort collapses into a re-iteration of the visually literate nimrod's politics. In the end it's never more complicated than them being mad that someone photographed a naked woman.

It's fine to be mad that someone photographed that, or that the subject exists, or whatever, I don't care. What's dumb is to pretend that you're actually mad at the secret neoliberal coded message that you can't articulate but which is definitely in the photo probably as a punctum or something.


  1. Colberg is applying his modern translation to something that was made in a different context using a different "visual language" if we stay with the same label for the phenomenon. As you say yourself, your reading of the image is based on being literate to a different dialect, where Colberg is literate in his. The idea of visual literacy works in the same way as any other language which includes aspects of translation and miscommunication.

  2. Said screed: Streisand effect, virtue preening, predictable, boring.

  3. How do you link 'visual literacy' and 'general culture'? Like, look a a photo, be able to roughly identify when and where it was done, what the zeitgeist, cultural, social and technological hot items were at that time, where the elements in the photograph sit in relation to all these aspects? This doesn't necessarily require an MFA, but most people need a bit of prodding to go beyond the obvious content of the photo.

    1. Yes, I concur that either being of a culture, or having a fairly robust familiarity with a culture is (sometimes, maybe often) a pre-requisite for really making sense of a photo.

      This is less and less relevant, as Western Culture consumes more and more of the world, and as photos are largely made in and for that culture. But, yes, it's absolutely a thing.

      I submit that requiring any *more* than that, that assuming some special training, is to miss the point of a photo.

      The larger issue, which I did not do a good job of making clear, is that the "visual literacy" people seem to think that photos work on people through secret unseen channels, and that only a person trained in visual literacy can detect those channels.

      I do not believe in such secret channels.

      Photos can be "coded" with "secret messages" for sure, see any MFA program's output. But those secret messages do not work on the general public. Politicians you do not like are not Secretly Manipulating an Ignorant Public with Coded Meanings in their photos. This is basically Manchurian Candidate shit, basically "demonic messages on the record" shit, but with the serial numbers scratched out.

      Media people really really really want to pretend that subliminal messages work. It's like the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: it keeps getting resurrected under a new name, but it remains as wrong as it ever was.

    2. I dislike the term "visual literacy," because it ties seeing to language. I completely understand the temptation to put visual work on the same footing as novels. Novels are culturally important! Photographs, not so much.

      I think maybe cinema has a claim, through the virtues of temporality, language-like structures (a plot), and (usually) the inclusion of actual language -- dialog, voice-over etc. These aspects don't exist independently of a film; they are part and parcel of it. They are integral to story-telling.

      Still photographs can tell rudimentary stories which, without actual written/spoken stories to supplement them, are broadly unintelligible. We see this in 'photobooks' (as a narrow genre). Some people complain 'photobooks' aren't popular enough. This is why. 'Photobooks' are only of interest to those who make them.

      Nevertheless, photographs can communicate facts, ideas, and emotions -- visually. A consumer may then imagine, or project a personal 'story' onto the visual experience. But it is only the consumers own 'story,' and it may not line up at all with what the photographer thought was the 'story' (if they even thought about it).

      'I saw this' is pretty much the only valid, and commonly understood 'story' a photograph can tell. Sans supplemental text, we may then at best speculate on the circumstances.

  4. When these folk talk visual literacy, they're usually aiming also at a very.... academic view of what photographs or whatever should /must be. Where do you think all this goes when we get to books or sequences of pictures that are... not made to be "about" something? or theyre very on the nose, or more just "hey, look at this!"? Those projects can be pretty fun, cathartic whatever, often much more than Deep Art. I wonder how selective these folks are with what literacy is...