Compiled by Helena Zinkham, June 2004
Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 20540-4730
Visual literacy, the ability to read and understand pictures, is a basic skill for working with
prints, photographs, drawings, and other pictorial materials. You need to learn to recognize
subject content. You also need to consider the intent of the image creators, the influence of
production techniques, and the role of visual expression conventions. Awareness of your own,
possibly false, assumptions is as important as spotting discrepancies between what a picture
shows and what its caption says.
The following exercise can help you improve your observation abilities.1 A sample photograph is
on the next page to practice with. For more information about visual literacy, consult the sources
cited in the “Visual Literacy and Picture Research” section of the Visual Materials: Processing &
Cataloging Bibliography, which is available online at
1. Find an interesting picture and look at it for two minutes. (Don’t read the caption
a. Capture your first impression in a few words about what the image shows.
b. Name everything you see in the image.
c. Look at each part of the picture again.
2. Write a narrative caption about what the picture means.
a. Read any existing information that accompanies the image.
b. Add a short paragraph to account for who made the picture, why, when,
where, and how. Also describe what the picture shows.
c. Identify any assumptions with question marks.
3. Finalize the caption
a. Verify the original and additional caption information in reference
b. Show the picture and caption to colleagues.
c. Ask what they agree with and what they see that you missed.