Photography: Addressing Media Exploration and Visual Literacy

Visual Literacy

Visual literacy is fundamental to the teaching of art in middle school and complements student exploration of the question, “What is Art?” This is one of the first questions asked in my art classes, generating answers ranging from “I don’t know!” to “Stuff in a museum?” to “It’s just self-expression!” These first tentative answers often reveal a lack of developed cognitive perception, mere lingering memories of elementary school art class or perhaps cultural stereotyping of the arts. As Freedman points out in his discussion of constructivist concepts of learning as applied to visual art, knowledge is part of the child’s socio-cultural environment, which includes school:

When a student says that art is ‘free self-expression,’ the student has not necessarily reflected on the complex relationship of individual freedom to sociocultural [sic] norms that influence choices related to stylistic conventions, subject matter, and so on. So, adults may not know what knowledge the student has actually constructed attached to the phrase except that it is one which has currency in certain settings.

This question “What is Art?” will come up again and again as students are introduced to unfamiliar aspects or less easily “readable” examples of visual art. In order to participate in interactive discussion that will develop visual literacy, students will need to practice visual thinking skills. As Albert Einstein stated, “Imagination is more important than knowledge” (Babb) – questions and can be more important than answers if the imagination is being stimulated.

Since exercise of imagination is a step many students balk at taking and must, like the exercise of literacy be regularly practiced, I have hung Babb’s poster of Einstein’s quote, along with several other posters addressing creativity, as a reminder to students to use their imagination. I use quotes and mottoes to encourage contemplation of issues underlying my educational goals, such as ideas existing independently of an individual and the inter-connectedness of society and culture with art.

Another way to effectively direct student contemplation of these goals is through the selection of artwork to display in the art classroom. In these displays I attempt to focus on a particular idea or subject reflected in artwork from a number of artists with diverse backgrounds or from different periods of time. This encourages the perception an idea can be addressed by many individuals resulting in artworks that, though diverse in conception and individual creative expression, are similarly informed. This perception is what generates dialogue with art.
One of the underlying goals I have in lesson planning is for my students to realize that they are literally surrounded by art – in the religious, domestic, social, commercial, political, and cultural realms of daily life. Visual literacy allows students to achieve this realization – art is not just an artifact, but it has meaning and communicates ideas, often through symbols so deeply rooted as to pass unchallenged and unrecognized by its audience. As key issues to be addressed through visual literacy, I believe creative expression and the nature of art can be used successfully to open the minds and hearts of my students to encoded communication in visual artworks. These keys will help to unlock art and will help students begin to recognize the symbolism rooted so deeply in culture – the symbolism that reaches out from the past, branching into everyday life – communicating through visual imagery. The most familiar of this visual imagery for most of my middle school students is photographs, yet they are usually unaware of the communication, the messages, the symbols, even of the “art” to be found in photography.

As my middle school art classes consist of students with multiple levels of visual art experience, I use strategies similar to those practiced by many museum educators to engage audiences of varied levels of experience with unfamiliar artworks, as well as Visual Thinking Strategies espoused by VUE, Visual Understanding in Education, based on the work of museum educator Philip Yenawine and cognitive psychologist Abigail Housen. Relating aesthetic thinking to cognition development, this visual arts program helps students find meaning in artworks through activation of various thinking skills:

Over time, students grow from casual, random, idiosyncratic viewers to thorough, probing, reflective interpreters. They go from finding only personal connections… to searching out the intentions of artists and dealing with elements of styles. They are first encouraged to find meaning based on their past experience (legitimatizing what they know), and to become grounded storytellers. After… experience… they are asked to develop their own voices through writing about art… The process first depends on group interaction and works toward individual problem solving motivated by personal interests. As students develop their connection to art, they exercise a wide variety of cognitive skills, which are useful in many contexts.

The engagement of students with visual thinking strategies to investigate artworks, also involves students in the sharing of cultural commonalities and differences. To encourage an understanding of how influence and inspiration knows no boundaries in art, I specifically introduce artists and artworks encompassing diversity of race, gender, culture, and history, as well as examples reflecting their own heritage. For instance, not only can students explore similarities in geometric designs throughout the Pre-Columbian Americas with those in Inca textiles, but also they can make connections with American, Latin-American and European Constructivist and Modern artists of the 20thcentury that still inform our contemporary culture (Kropf).

In his discussion of the teaching of art informed by cognitive development research, Efland points out the socio-cultural ideas of Vygotsky have three implications for teaching art as a cognitive endeavor: the study of art in relation to its social context; recognition of culture as symbol-making activity; and learning involves internalization of cultural knowledge and cultural practices. I try to weave interconnections between social context, symbol-making, and internalization of cultural knowledge like a mobius spider’s web. I want students to make fluid connections and to see that there are always unknowns to contemplate – dialogues in which to engage. My goal is their broad awareness of visual art – what it might be, where it might be found, and how students themselves might create art rooted in their own unique individuality and heritage. Practicing communication, expressing view-point, using the open-dialogue and visual thinking skills of visual literacy engage students in reading the artwork – what it communicates, where it is rooted, and the audience focus of its maker.

Although my students do not readily recognize that art surrounds them, they do perceive that they are enveloped in imagery, especially photographic images. Introducing students to the concepts of message and audience in photographic artworks, to the idea that symbols represent and communicate meanings, will establish a foundation for visual literacy. It will also provide an exciting dimension for engaging with daily-life that will enhance the creative expression of identity. Freedman discusses this relationship between media and visual culture:

The relationships between images and their interdisciplinary connections, including the sociopolitical conditions under which they are produced and seen, are vital to understanding visual culture. This understanding is a form of cognitive appropriation through which students transform information into something they can use… artistic production is a visual illustration of this conceptual integration. When making or viewing a new visual form, the focus of cognition often involves the establishment of connections between and among dispersed references to representations of visual culture.

A mixed-media approach that incorporates photography will also assist students to address issues of “real truth” or “reality” both in photography and in visual art. Although students will be able to discern messages, they often are too accepting of a photographic image as “real” truth or “reality.” This assumption that the camera – not the artist – makes the photograph will challenge student reading of the message in the photograph and their discernment of the photographer as artist. Speaking about the innovative photo-sculpture installations created of silver prints on stone and glass by the Japanese artist Keiichi Tahara, Pierre Bourhan says:

Once the eyes and the viewfinder have done their work, Tahara’s hands continue the search. In subsequent elaboration, the artist chooses the support (the glass plate), the dimensions, the type of treatment, the framing, then puts it all together and situates it in space – the installation. Then and only then, after going through these transitional stages, do we have the work – fulfilled, transcendent, as far removed from reality as a statue or a painting can be.

Discussing issues of technical manipulations, creative expression, artistic dialogue and the nature of art in exercises of visual literacy will in turn inform mix-media exploration in their own creative artworks as students incorporate photographic images.


At Clifton Middle School in Houston Independent School District’s Northwest Feeder Pattern (four elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school), I teach introductory one-semester, block-scheduled art classes of 30-35 students in both 6thgrade and mixed 6th, 7th, and 8th grades. Classes are made up predominately of lower income Hispanic and Black students, many of whom have very little or no formal background in the visual arts. If coming from one of the district feeder elementary schools, the student generally has a strong foundation and experience of making art, but I only get a few of these students in any one class, along with many retained, at risk, behavior modification, recent immigrant and English Second Language students. Magnet students for the math and sciences are usually interspersed with an occasional repeating student. But classes always consist of multiple experience levels, so that I must always be teaching a “beginning” middle school art class that introduces art issues and concepts, covers Texas Essential Knowledge Skills for the Visual Arts, and lays a basic foundation for students who will be going on to high school art classes.

To accommodate multiple experience levels, encourage exploration of the nature of art, and facilitate student expression of identity, I will encourage experimentation with mixed-media. This strategy invites individual expression and scaffolds developing experience, while maintaining focus on art elements and principles of design. I also will incorporate some Texas Academic Knowledge Skills in math, science, social studies, writing, and reading. Incorporating vocabulary, writing and reading skills in lessons are mandated in our school-wide focus for the interdisciplinary support of TAKS testing objectives at Clifton Middle School.

Photographic Media

Although students are familiar with photography, they usually do not perceive symbolism or messages imbedded in a photograph. However, message and view-point are inherent whether photography is used for entertainment, commerce, scientific inquiry, documentation, or artwork. In deconstructing the creative artist’s engagement with photography students will engage visual thinking skills to explore symbolism, messages, and view-point.

As an exploratory unit, students will be introduced to manipulation and mixing of photographic imagery with painting, printmaking and collage. I will focus on mixed-media artworks by Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Joan Miro, Antoni Tapies, Andy Warhol, Chuck Close, and David Hockney. In addition, I will introduce examples by many other artists, including installation and performance art forms, to broaden students’ perceptual scope of both mixed-media and the nature of art.

Three of the issues addressed by contemporary photographic artists – Time, Place, and Identity (Hayward) will help me weave my focus on student identity and visual literacy in this unit. Investigations of the photographic media in commercial, political, and cultural daily-life will contribute to awareness of symbols and motifs.

Artists and Themes

The Spaniards: Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Joan Miro, and Antoni Tapies

The photographic media experimentation of these four artists, though following similar paths, yielded artworks that are easily recognizable within each artist’s personal style. Joan Fontcuberta stated that:

Their love of experimentation, plus their lively interest in different procedures and materials, led them to try everything, to remain open to any new means of expression… [In] the researches of Picasso, Miro, Dali and Tapies in the domain of cameras and photochemistry…photography became a fabulous apparatus for intensifying the gaze and a medium for generating novel experiments. In a word, they showed us once and for all that lens, light and photosensitive materials are merely tools that, like the brush and pigment, further the artist’s work.

Pablo Picasso

Picasso used thousands of photographic images as direct references and inspiration in his creative works – some he made and some were photographic postcards he collected (Baldassari). He also inventively played with photographic images of his own compositions as he developed the paintings – not just experimenting with the paintings, but with the photographs, as well:

Picasso directly intervened in the printing of Photographic Composition with ‘Construction with Guitar Player’ … by partly masking the negative with a set of cardboard masks. The two resulting contact prints… thereby combine, in the strictly flat plane of the photograph, the techniques of cutout and collage that are the basis of the papiers colles [collage]… Once ‘equalized’ by the photograph into a play of black-and-white values, the man, the guitar, the studio space, and the real and depicted objects all lend themselves to unlimited permutation, transmutation, and so on. Here, the cutout shape becomes an angular ideogram for guitar, and the vertical lines drawn on the canvas represent its network of strings. These graphical strings are superimposed on the real string holding the guitar, whose dark shape henceforth becomes the hand playing the imagined instrument. (Baldassari)

Besides photographic documentation and composition experimentation in his studio work, Picasso used the photographic medium creatively in mixed-media projects, such as a series of lithographs Diurnes, 1962 created in collaboration with photographer Andre Villiers. These are very textural works using photograms that focus the eye on the textured shape starkly enveloped by a dark cut-out, as in Jacqueline como Atenea (Jacqueline as Athena ), 1962, and Ronc, 1962. Alternately, a light-sensitive paper cut-out shape is placed over textured background and then exposed for contrast, such as in La mariee (The Bride), 1961-62, and Superposicion de mascaras (Superimposed Masks), 1961 (Fontcuberta). Picasso employed the technique of photogenic drawing – either drawing or directly sticking feathers, sawdust, and cut-out shapes onto adhesive paper placed between the light source and photo-sensitive paper during printing (Baldassari).

Salvador Dali

In his introduction to the photographic works of Dali in The Artist and the Photograph, Fontcuberta states that:
In the same way that automatic writing enabled unforeseen poetic associations to be revealed, so photography provided a way for the Surrealists to fix the unconscious of the gaze. Dali was attracted very early on by the transformative capacity of the camera… pictorial interventions on different photos and various collages help us comprehend the powerful influence of the photographic vision.

In one example of photographic collage, Dali gathered a series of found objects from the coastal shoreline for twelve separate silver gelatin prints. They compose Objects-Trouves (dans le gesier d’un canard mystique) (Objects Found in the Gizzard of a Mystical Duck), 1929-30. After being printed and cropped in rectangles, the prints were arranged four across and three deep on white paper. Top edges of some prints are outlined and pale shadows were created under some of the raised corners. To splatters on the surface Dali added a duck-figure formed in a stringy, thickened substance with sprigs of dried grasses and thin wires (Fontcuberta).

Joan Miro

The photographer, Joaquin Gomis was both a friend and chronicler of Joan Miro’s career, and assisted him with photographic experimentation. These experiments began with found objects and then small compositions or assemblages of objects, especially shells, gourds, hats, and shoes. Not only did Miro use photographs to inspire preparatory sketches for later artworks (sketching and painting on the photographs with gouache, pastel, ink, and graphite), but he also used his photographs and cut-out illustrations from periodicals to create collages (Fontcuberta).

Comparing three preparatory sketches for Arrels al cel (Roots in the Sky), 1960, for Gat a la vinya (Cat in the Vinyard), 1961, and for La masovera a la verema (The Farmer’s Wife During the Grape Harest), 1961 with Miro’s original photograph of the striking, gnarled branches of a tree silhouetted against a blank sky invites questions of meaning and mood. While Gat a la vinya reveals whimsical lines and lighter values of black-and-white sketched in India ink on the silver gelatin print, the other two are more intricately worked interpretations. Miro introduces a transparent, hazy blue gouache for the shadow of the tree limbs with more of the whimsical India ink sketching restructuring the tree branches in Arrels al cel. The treatment in La masovera a la verema is more starkly aggressive, as Miro introduces yellow, red and blue opaque acrylic to form globular shapes and applies broad thick strokes of black to boldly abstract the tree’s shape.

Antoni Tapies

Examples in The Artist and the Photograph by Antoni Tapies are unfinished works, revealing the creative process of an artist who experiments with various techniques and materials, such as “photopainting”:

Photopaintings are works in which the light and the chemical agents utilized in the photographic process totally or partially replace the pigments of the picture-making process… [using] the gestures or tools specific to painting (like brushes of one sort or another). Photopainting is usually combined with the ‘photogram’ or the ‘chemogram,’ or with both. Photograms are traces of objects produced by the pure action of light on photosensitive surfaces, and hence without the intercession of a camera. Chemograms are traces produced by the action of chemical agents, also on photosensitive surfaces. (Fontcuberta)

Tapies’ Cadira I, II, II, IV (Chair I, II, III, IV), n.d. reveal photopainting with photogram/chemogram of a chair. Joan Foncuberta took studio photographs documenting steps of the process, including Tapies standing on one work to leave his footprints, and brushing over the chair’s photogram to diffuse the image. The resultant paintings are collage-like inclusions of ghost images of the chair and in Cadira III – two footprints. Cadira IV reveals the chair painted out with a photogram of garden clippers in one corner. In each, bold, textural swaths of brushstrokes create calligraphic backgrounds recalling Tapies’ interest in both graffiti-covered walls and the philosophy of Ramon Llull (Chalumeau). Like Llull, Tapies uses specific geometric letters:

Under Llull’s influence, Tapies considered that painting was a way of reflecting on life and of helping the beholder to see what the artist had already seen… Llull resorted particularly to ‘figures of meaning’… to letters as a medium with which ‘to copy mental figures.’ In his treatise Ars magna he privileges seven geometric figures which he calls A, S, T, V, X, Y, and Z. These very letters appear in a number of works by Tapies… whose favorite capitals are the A (the figure of essential dignities)… and the T (that represents the principles of distinction of meaning) [to which Tapies adds M (a sign for will)]. (Chalumeau)

As Tapies moved away from Surrealism towards Matter Painting, he incorporated sand, soil, marble dust and found objects in his paintings, creating highly textured surfaces - sometimes incised or written on (Chalumeau). The painterly application of his Matter Painting and graffiti is echoed in his photopainting of the chairs.

Andy Warhol

Warhol’s advertising background informed his subject matter and his methods. He addressed mass-produced consumption (soup cans, Coca Cola bottles, and comic-strip characters) and pop-culture icons (Jackie Kennedy, Elvis Presley, and Marilyn Monroe) by using mass-production methods: photographic image/text-projection techniques; mass-produced or “instant” Polaroid photographs; and repetitive screenprinting techniques (Honnef; Weitman).

With repetition of photographic images from mass-media in works like Triple Elvis, 1964, and Four Marilyns, 1967, Warhol addressed public fascination with the American success story; nostalgia for the frontier spirit of the American West; and the making of legendary icons for mass-consumption - all three shaped by photography through mass-media and films (Bolton; DePaoli; Honnef).

Klaus Honnef speaks of Warhol’s projection of newspaper photographs in his paintings as the catalyst for both his thematic involvement with photography and his ultimate contribution to photography’s role in Pop-Art, subsequently leading to the legitimization of photographic images in contemporary art:

The photograph filters reality, changing the material penetrating through its grid by imprinting on it its own pattern of perception… [It] is the realism achieved by a form of illustration which is of itself proven real. Because of its exceptional authenticity the photo counts as an inviolable testimony to the reality which it depicts… Warhol sharpens the viewer’s perception of the second-hand nature of any experience of reality. Reality multiplied a hundredfold and presented in precise form loses its terror and hence can be consumed by the masses.

Warhol addressed consumer exploitation and the destructiveness of repetition in a series of photographic-silkscreen prints of crashes, race-riots and President Kennedy’s assassination. In the silkscreen print Sixteen Jackies, 1964, he evenly divides the picture plane into repetitions of news-media photographs of Jackie Kennedy, both veiled in bereavement and smiling prior to the gunshots. With repetition and reverse images Warhol undermines perception –“reiteration undermines the exceptional value of the original” – but it is not so strongly felt as in his single-image works with less pictorial interest. The contrast of smiling and grieving addresses our interpretation of time – the transience of happiness and poignancy of grief (Bolton; Honnef)

Chuck Close

Richard Shiff in his essay in Chuck Close Prints: Process and Collaboration discusses the beginning steps of the artist’s usually very large format painting and printmaking works, involve a small close-up photograph of a person’s head. Close works in a pointillist/grid style referencing photography; however, his photography is affected in turn by the painting and printmaking images, becoming more than just references:

When Close photographs his subjects [for his daguerreotypes], he radically reduces the depth of field (process), preferring to set his model right next to the camera [the opposite of traditional process]… dramatically compressing the area of the subject’s head that appears in sharp focus… the result is strangely unfamiliar… [as] the area of sharpest focus… appears on the plane of the cheekbones, eyes, and mouth, with the tip of the nose in front of that plane and the ears behind with both far less resolved: ‘sharp focus data within a sandwich of blur’ [as seen in Kirk, 2002].

Issues of realism arise in artworks of Chuck Close, because by using a grid which imitates the photographic process, facial features often seem realistic at first glance. However, Close is interested not in representation but process (Schiff).

David Hockney

Hockney began experimenting with photographic media in 1982, creating composites with Polaroid prints arranged in grids, as can be seen in his portrait David Graves Pembroke Studios London Tuesday 27thApril 1982, 1982. Examples of his photocollages using an overlapping technique to create a final composition with a series of detail prints are My mother, Bolton Abbey, Yorkshire, Nov.82 #4, 1984 and Mother I, Yorkshire Moors, August 1985 #1, 1985. The first shows only slight overlapping of large background ruins surrounding a full-figure in foreground, with irregular edges to final composition due to shapes of individual detail-prints. However, the second is a close-up of face without background, demonstrating freer overlapping. Unlike Bearden, who cut-out his images, Hockney uses the whole detail print, itself. Hockney has explored large composite-photograph and photocollage formats, experimenting with not only Polaroid cameras, but color photocopiers, fax and computer to create complex photographic artworks (Lucie-Smith).

- Sandra Storms Kropf

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