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
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
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.