Category: Visual Literacy

September 17, 2016

Concrete for Young Curators

Filed under: Deep Thoughts,Visual Literacy — mas @ 9:15 am

The Rowboat


Most of the photography curators are dead or, at least, retired.  They were the people with a deeply studied perspective on photography, its history, its traditions, and its possibilities.  They could look at a photograph and know how to read it, or they would figure it out.  In this, the curators were not alone. Viewers at large were capable , even eager to study a photograph and satisfy themselves as to why the photo existed, be it for emotional, informative, or esthetic reasons.

All that seems to have changed.  Today’s curators are too young to have experience with photographic traditions and too accustomed to mass media and marketing to take the time to read a photograph. To a person, these youthful gatekeepers are not interested in photographs but in story.  Stories of disaster, injustice, or deep seated traumas, be it the subject’s or the photographer’s. Without that accompanying story, these people are lost, and so is the path from creation to public attention.

I came up in a tradition of getting it right or doing it over untl it worked. Doing it right meant no explanation was necessary.  Requiring explanation was failure.  To me, explanation is synonomous to apology, as in, “this isn’t my best work, but…” I also learned about levels of abstraction. The thing is concrete; a picture is abstract, and words are more abstract. Why, therefore, would I want to explain a photograph with words?  To quote Milan Kundera,

“What is essential in a [work] is precisely what can only be expressed in that [piece of work], and so every adaptation contains nothing but the non-essential.”

July 25, 2015

How Vashon, WA. is related to Edinburgh, UK.










March 5, 2015


Filed under: Uncategorized,Visual Literacy — mas @ 9:08 am

Prompted by recent discussion by photojournalists intent on maintaining their credibility, their identity, and their jobs:

Language and ideas are closely aligned. When a high profile group or person appropriates a word and redefines it, that action can have major impact on both the language and public perception. “Journalism” has been adopted by the media to define the activity it’s involved in and the resulting product. It follows that a journalist is a practitioner of journalism. The adoption of these terms then means that a person keeping a journal has no definitive moniker.

The current discussion about the practices of photojournalism attempts to include documentary photography and apply the same rules necessary to news photography. The caveat here is that many documentary photographers are not news photographers. Often, these documentarians make photographs as a way of keeping a journal, but that journal is for their own use, not to inform the public.

“A picture is not the same as the actual thing,” to quote Gary Winogrand, one of the greatest documentary photographers ever. Winogrand’s work was included with that of Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander in an exhibition, called New Documents, at the Museum of Modern Art. The implication was that documentary photography was just as easily celebratory of the world as it was indicting or even exposing.   Perhaps a better word for certain types of photojournalism would be “exposition.”

Other documentary photographers include W. Eugene Smith, Robert Frank, Josef Koudelka, and Anders Petersen. Their work is different from each other’s, but there is little doubt that it is all documentary and none of it can be impugned, even though a great amount of work is done in the darkroom. Smith said 90% of photography is done in the darkroom, Robert Frank recropped pictures for later editions of The Americans, and Anders Petersen’s work is heavily burned and dodged.

Why does any of this matter? Public perception. If there is confusion in the terminology, there is confusion of ideas. How about “photoshop?” Do you? Right. And then there’s “post process.” First you take the photo, then you process it. Is post processing when you hang it on the wall?

Let’s be careful out there.

Michael A. Shapiro
March 2015


August 23, 2013

1000 Words

Filed under: Uncategorized,Visual Literacy — mas @ 12:40 pm
Minneapolis, 2013

Minneapolis, 2013

There seems to be some confusion about the phrase, “A picture’s worth a thousand words.” What does it mean? It means you can use a picture instead of a lot of words. What it doesn’t mean is that a picture requires a lot of words for people to understand it. Unless the photo is being used as illustration, it doesn’t matter where or when the picture was taken or what the photographer was thinking or how the photographer was feeling when he took the photo. The point is, it’s a photograph. The photographer looked at the contact sheet and responded to the photo, so he shared it with the world.

What should you do when you look at the photo? First, feel. Then ask yourself why you feel. The answer may be in the photo, or it may be in your experience. This is, of course, simplified. If you have something to add or ask, please do.

August 14, 2013

Emotional Appeal

Filed under: Visual Literacy — mas @ 8:29 pm


Do you like this photo? Why? (or why not)
This puppy is abandoned.
He is abandoned because the little boy who owned him got hit by a car.
He got hit by a car right after he was pronounced totally recovered from brain tumor surgery.
The puppy was abandoned, not only because the boy was dead but also because the medical bills made the parents lose their house.
The family originally found this dog at a rescue shelter when their son first got sick. He was their only child.
Do you like this photo? Why (or why not)

July 16, 2012

Visual Literacy: Intentional Fallacy

In looking for parallels between photography and other types of art, I find a photo to be most equivalent to a poem. The elements of the photo would be the words in the poem. It’s a simple comparison that brings up a complicated issue; why are readers of poems responsible for their own understanding of the work, while photographers are responsible for providing viewers with captions as well as statements of intent?

If photos were inherently more abstract than poems, there might be a reason for helping the viewer along, but since the written word is many levels further removed from reality than a photo, the question is still on the table.

In addition, the matter of intention is completely set on its ear. With poetry, readers, especially critics commit the intentional fallacy of trying to psychoanalyze the artist through his work, while with photography the curators and editors want the artist to psychoanalyze herself through her work. In either case, the intentional fallacy is being committed.

July 10, 2012

Whose Responsibility?

Filed under: Visual Literacy,Work in Progress — mas @ 2:30 pm

Another Visual Literacy Post:

My brother-in-law, Doug Plummer, is giving workshops for people wanting to photograph dancers. Many of his students are beginning photographers, so much of Doug’s instruction is on the basics, including one basic that I have espoused over and over, that photography is about seeing. Coupled with that is the rule, “don’t let the content overwhelm the form.” I want to remember to come back to that at a later time. Suffice it to say for now, that this is a concept that everyone needs to understand.

-which brings us to the point of this post-

My original idea was to teach visual literacy to viewers, just as we teach everyone to read. Doug is teaching the same material to practitioners. This is certainly not a new idea, but is has proven to have merit. Think about the required studio art course in many college core curricula. These courses are not designed to produce artists; they seemingly magically turn students into art appreciators who are literate in looking at visual art. In other words, they learn to see. Perhaps we need to approach visual literacy from both sides of the problem.

“Photography is simple. It’s about seeing and about translating what we see into pictures. For me, the challenge is in acknowledging the documentary properties of each photograph while maintaining its presence foremost as an aesthetic study. My reason for living is to make the next photograph better than the last.” Michael A Shapiro

July 8, 2012

Visual Literacy

Filed under: Visual Literacy,Work in Progress — mas @ 1:05 pm

I’m formulating a plan to generate public interest and increase the skill level in visual literacy, reading photographs. For now, I’m going to use this blog space to collect ideas. As I search through my notes and talk with other artists and educators, I’ll post the pieces here. If you’re interested in following this process, it would be easiest if you subscribe to this blog. Just click the little orange thing. If you have ideas, please contact me by email or through comments after the posts. Email: michael at

Entry One, found on my hard drive:

“Photography as art.

The best we can do is to photograph what we see in the hopes of making an aesthetically satisfying combination of geometry and light. If that combination doesn’t exist, the photograph is a failure. If, on the other hand, the viewer fails to detect the interplay of lines and shapes that actually exists, perhaps it is not the photo that is at fault.

I believe that we are experiencing a decline in the quality of viewership in the world of photography. People are spoiled by the photojournalistic presence in art. They want that immediate attention-grabbing gimmick. I do not. People believe that photography must somehow morph into a never-before-seen genre. I do not, anymore than I think poets should stop writing sonnets or sestinas, because those forms have already been used.”

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