"All of us are watchers - of television, of time clocks, of traffic on the freeway - but few of us are observers. Everyone is looking, not many are seeing."
- Peter M. Leschak

Why is visual literacy important?

We live in an increasingly visual culture. We are surrounded by images everywhere in our lives. By looking at and studying photographs with your students, you will help them better understand the complexities of their world.

Visual literacy is defined as the ability to understand communications composed of visual images as well as being able to use visual imagery to communicate to others. Students become visually literate by the practice of visual encoding (expressing their thoughts and ideas in visual form) and visual decoding (translating and understanding the meaning of visual imagery).

It is important that students learn to recognize and understand the often-complex messages of photographic images. Consistent with this goal, this website provides students with tools needed to critically examine their visual world.

By participating in Picture This activities, your
students will:

- learn to appreciate and analyze photographs
- increase their visual literacy.
- develop and improve observational skills
- increase critical thinking skills

Photography and history

"The image survives the subject and becomes the remembered reality." - John Szarkowski (Director of Photography Department, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1962 - 1991)

As is alluded to in the quote above, photography is a powerful medium that greatly influences our interpretation of past events and our understanding of history. Most people become familiar with historical events through documentary photography reproduced in newspapers and books. We often learn about events after they occur and depend on photography to tell us stories about the past.

Given that photography influences how we think about history, we should all be aware that photographs are not simply objective records of people, places, and events. Rather, each photograph is a highly edited production, and is created by a person who has unique opinions and views about the world. These viewpoints influence the types of images the photographer creates. In turn, our life experiences and personal opinions influence how we understand and "read" photographs.

By participating in the activities listed here, your students will gain a greater understanding of the various ways photography functions and influences how we think about history. Your students will explore and contemplate how a photographer's own point of view comes into play in the images that he or she creates and how we each interpret photographs differently, depending on our own life experience.

Why teach with primary source material such as photographs?

By utilizing primary source material in your curriculum, you expose your students to artifacts from the past that are authentic and make history come alive. Students enjoy seeing objects from the period they are studying. The National Archives states that primary sources "fascinate students because they are real and they are personal: history is humanized through them."

Picture This Visual Literacy Activity #1


Take a good look!

A format for looking at and talking about photographs.


As Professor of Art Education Terry Barrett says, "Describing is a logical place to start when viewing an exhibition or particular photograph because it is a means of gathering basic information on which understanding is built." Carefully looking at and describing a work of art is crucial in the understanding of the work. This format introduces you and your students to questions that will help you carefully view and describe photographs on the Picture This Web site, and therefore, gain better understanding of them.

Length of Activity varies, depending on how many images are viewed and described. Plan to spend 15 - 20 minutes for each image viewed.


Images printed from the Picture This Web site, or have students view images directly from a computer monitor.


Use Take a Good Look! format to guide your students in careful observation and description of images in the Picture This Web site. Guide a discussion by asking your students questions from the following list. It is not necessary to discuss every question below in every photograph - address the questions in each category below that pertain to the photograph you are viewing.

Subject Matter

- What is the main subject of this photograph?
- What is going on in this photograph?
- What do you see that makes you say that?
- What do you think interested the photographer about this subject?


- When do you think this picture was taken?
- What do you think happened just after the photograph was taken?
- What happened right before the photograph was taken?

Visual Elements


- Light is an essential element in the making of any photograph.
- Does the light seem to be natural or artificial?
- Harsh or soft?
- From what direction is the light coming?


- What parts of the image are clearly in focus?
- Are some parts out of focus?
Note: The range between the nearest and farthest things that appear in focus define the photograph's depth of field.


- What colors do you see, if any?


- Do you see visual textures within the photograph?

Composition of the Photograph:
How Things Are Arranged


- How would the picture change if you moved the camera to the right or left, or up or down?
- What has the photographer left out of the picture?

Vantage point

- Where do you think the photographer was standing when he/she took this picture?
- How far was the photographer from what you see in the picture?
- How could you change the vantage point to make the picture look different?


- Close your eyes. When you open them and look at the photograph what is the first thing you notice?
- Why is your attention drawn there?
- Are there other centers of interest?
- How are the centers of interest created?


- Is there strong visual contrast - lights and darks, varying textures, etc.?


- Is the visual weight on one side of the photograph about the same as the other?
- How about from top to bottom? Diagonally?

Historical and Cultural Context

- Where do you think it was made?
- Who do you think the people in the picture are?
- What does it look like they are doing?
- Does this tell you anything about when, where, and what was going on when the photograph was made?
- What was happening in history during the time this photograph was taken?

Original Purpose

- How was the photograph first seen or used?
- How is the photograph seen today?

Photographer's Intention

- What biographical information do you know about the photographer?
- Does this information tell you anything about why the photographer may have created the photograph?
- What do you think the photographer was trying to express through the image?
- What do you see that makes you say that?


- Subject - The main thing depicted in a photograph. The subject may be people, objects, shapes, places, events, etc.
- Framing- What the photographer has placed within the boundaries of the photograph.
- Vantage Point - Where the photographer positioned the camera to take the picture.
- Dominance - What is most influential or important in the image. In a work of art, the dominant point is where your eye is drawn first.
- Contrast-Opposition or juxtaposition of different forms, lines, or colors in a work of art to intensify each other's properties and produce a more dynamic expression.
- Balance - To arrange or adjust parts in a symmetrical way.

- Questions written by Tomoko Maruyama, Curator of Education, Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego, and Cass Fey, Curator of Education, Center for Creative Photography, TheUniversity of Arizona.

© 2003 Oakland Museum of California

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