In London by Ernst Haas, we see many expressions of seeing: a glance, a stare, a regard, a study, and non-seeing—averted eyes, the backs of heads. We see pictures within pictures, each offering limited glimpses of life on London streets in 1951. At the same time that these mirrored reflections offer bits of information, the photograph withholds. The photograph invites and challenges us to see.

As visually literate detectives, we detect, decode, and synthesize the information from the visual image as if within lies the solution to the puzzle. We ask ourselves what we are looking at, how the artist created the image, why the photographer made certain choices, what the photograph is saying. Our eye moves around the image, entranced by the relationships among forms. As we look at the picture, feelings rise, and we think of associations between the image and our experiences. We may be reminded of other artists or traditions in art history. We assemble clue after clue, looking thoughtfully and sensitively at the image, until finally we see.

There is delight in seeing: in revealing a mystery, considering a new perspective, discovering what was hidden. Ways of seeing are different for each individual. Seeing means coming to an understanding, and each of us does that differently. As artist Vik Muniz says, “The visual world is like a crossword puzzle; we all have the same puzzle but each of us stores it differently.”

What is visual literacy?

Visual literacy is the ability to decode visual symbols into meaning. Looking at art involves responding—to what we see in the artwork and how that connects to what we see in ourselves and in the world around us. Thinking about visual art transforms our personal responses into “visual literacy”—we construct a visual language so that we can “read” the visual information. When we read images, we are synthesizing our sensorial, emotional, and cognitive responses to the photograph into meaning. We also construct a visual dictionary, a mental store of images that serve as definitions when we compare and contrast images. As visual literacy advances, we make more sophisticated judgments about images based on what we see and what we remember seeing.

Literacy, when traditionally referring to verbal literacy, is the “ability to read, speak, listen, write, and think effectively.” Similarly, visual literacy includes the abilities to “read” or decode visual images; to articulate to others your perception of what the image communicates and listen to others’ responses; to create visual statements (e.g., to adjust the lighting and framing to communicate what you want to say or to edit a series of images); and to think through problems visually (e.g., to draw as you think, to compose images, and to stage elaborate studio shoots). Building these visual literacy skills takes time and involves looking at images, discussing visual elements, creating images, and reflecting on both the process and the results. Reflecting and discussing are critical processes; posing questions that encourage thoughtful responses helps students to get more and more out of the image.

It is important to note that educators are guiding students along a natural process when reflecting on images in this way. Visual literacy is related to basic functions of our eyes and mind. Cognitively and emotionally, we use imagery to make sense of the world. Every day, navigating the streets as we go to work or to school, we interpret visual signs. We also create images to remember our experiences; in our mind’s eye we can see our home or family. These visual images are sensory patterns, produced by the eye and stored by the brain.6 Similarly, as we look at and think about a photograph, our eyes and mind take in the sensory pattern and interpret what the image signifies. We see the arrangements of shapes, respond emotionally, and think about their meaning.

This is a natural process, one that connects art and life, and yet we must train ourselves to see. All too often our disposition is to race through a gallery just like we pass by a poster on the street, in both cases allowing our quick glance and hasty judgment to tell us what we need in order to make it from one place to another. However, to truly understand art, and for that understanding to have an impact upon our lives, education, or our own artwork, we need to take the time to see thoughtfully and intelligently. Reading images in this way unleashes their power.

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

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