Spending time looking at and thinking about images is an activity that needs to be encouraged. In The Intelligent Eye, David Perkins proposes doing a “seeing,” or writing for 10 minutes a stream-of-conscious response to art. Part of this process involves asking yourself questions that focus more and more on specific attributes of the artwork, describing what you see—from the literal subject to the formal qualities—and then interpreting what you see. As Perkins says, “By looking longer and in more refined, informed, systematic ways, we can come to see what at first we missed.” This approach allows us to use our intuitive, emotional, and cognitive resources to respond to art, all the while guided by interpretative questions that take us further into the artwork. It can make the experience of looking at art richer.

Based on this concept, the following Focus activity engages educators or students in a process of reflection about a single artwork using guiding questions to inspire thoughtful looking and free writing. Responses from this activity can be used as a diagnostic tool to discover what elements of a photograph are hard for educators or students to comprehend.

Seeing activity

Select a photograph. Look at it closely and thoughtfully for 30 seconds. (Time yourself; it will feel much longer than you may expect.) Then use the following questions to guide your “seeing,” and write your responses quickly and freely. Skip questions that are too hard and come back to them later. This activity should take about 20 minutes.

First Impressions

List ten details that you see in the photograph. What else do you see?


Where is your eye drawn? Describe the pattern, shapes, and colors. Look away and then look at the photograph again. What caught your eye first? Why does that stand out?

Photographic Attributes

Find the pattern of light and shadow. What does the lighting draw your attention to? Describe what is in focus. What is the photographer’s point of view? What else do you notice about how the photograph was made?


What is the subject of the photograph? What questions do you have about the subject?

Style & Genre

Use an adjective to describe the style of the photograph. Can you guess what genre this photograph represents? What makes you say that?


How does the photograph make you feel? What does the photograph make you think of? Why do you think the photographer made these artistic choices? What do you think the photograph is saying?

Last Impressions

Look once more at the photograph and find something you haven’t described yet. What is your reaction to this exercise? Did anything surprise you?

- Cynthia Way for the International Center of Photography
© 2006 International Center of Photography

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