University of Rochester Library Bulletin: Visual Literacy?

Volume XXVII · Number 2 · Winter 1973-1974
Visual Literacy?
Director, International Museum of Photography, Eastman House

The photograph has long been an important entity to illustrate essentially literal concepts. Long before photomechanical reproduction became practical, in the 1890s, the value of photographs was recognized. Pictures were inserted into books by hand after having been laboriously printed and processed in silver albumen prints or the tedious woodburytype. In the 1880s, photogravure prints were possible, but this too added considerably to the burden of bookmaking. Obviously, the problems of bookmaking imposed limitations upon the author, be he poet, scholar, or novelist.

Despite all the limitations of the nineteenth century, many books utilized actual photographs, and a blue million were produced whereby a photograph served as the model for wood engravings or other media involving the interpretive role of an artist. Setting aside all but those which actually used the photograph, as can be seen by the monumental Walter Sage Hubbell collection at the University of Rochester Library, there are some very impressive titles, and there is a great abundance of subject matter which now should be looked at again -- for a different reason.

For a moment, skip about half a century from the period of the Hubbell books, and consider the work of Archibald McLeish in the thirties. McLeish wrote a book which originally was supposed to be a book of poetry illustrated by a series of photographs. When McLeish was confronted with the photographs from which he was to select the illustrations, he immediately recognized the impact of the pictures and altered his original plan, calling his book a book of photographs illustrated with a poem.1  Land of the Free was a milestone book. 2

The period of the thirties appears to have spawned a series of awakenings to the potential communicative power of photographs, for this decade marks the birth of Life,LookCoronetPM, and a host of lesser picture-oriented periodicals. This decade also produced the picture story or picture essay,3 and the great Farm Security Administration photo documentary project alone is said to have inspired the writing of Twelve Million Black VoicesThe Grapes of WrathAmerican Exodus, HometownUSA, a series on American cities by Edward Rosskam, and a lot of commentary in dozens of periodical articles.4

Why did all this happen in the thirties? The reasons seem obscure at best. One could argue that the Depression and the plight of the poor had something to do with it, but there was nothing new about this element of life. Riis and Hine had portrayed this element of life for nearly forty years.5  Stryker, who directed the FSA project in the late thirties, had actually co-authored a book illustrated mostly with Hine pictures in 1925, at least ten years before he himself had an opportunity really to use the visual language of photography.6

Books and literal communication existed long before Gutenberg's development, but they didn't really flourish as communicative tools until the technology provided the means. Similarly, pictorialism existed before Daguerre, but its use as a major communicative tool did not flourish until the technology permitted. There was a further gap, perhaps much akin to the problems of the early bookmakers when rag paper nearly ran out and limited production.7 Although photography was capable of a degree of mass production almost from the beginning, it was not until nearly the turn of the twentieth century that photomechanical reproduction gave pictorialism an almost unlimited potential. Bookmaking received the same kind of boost with the development of wood pulp in 1798.8

Pictorialism, with an unlimited potential, provided man with a communicative tool second only to printing in terms of cultural significance. It took a period of time to learn to manipulate this new tool to its full advantage; the thirties saw it mature. The concept of documentary photography began in the thirties, even though the previous hundred years of photography had, in fact, been a documentation of that century.

We can't look to technology entirely for an answer, for during the period just before and after the turn of the century, the technology of photomechanical reproduction was sufficient to suggest, for a period at least, that we might be totally innundated with picture books.

The Review of Reviews Publishing Company in Springfield, Massachusetts, must have produced the equivalent, in bulk, of at least one Egyptian pyramid.

If the society of the technology did not produce the element that sparked an awareness of the greater communicative power of the photographic picture, then what did? Could it be that during the period from 1900 to 1930, our ability to "read" pictures had developed to a sufficient degree that a new dimension in the communication process was developing? Perhaps "visual literacy" materialized.

Let's assume that this hypothesis has some merit and that, in addition, a photograph has a value beyond the original intent for its existence. Possibly photographs have a value similar to words in that the individual's meaning is limited, but the combination of many individual elements results in an essay or epic poem. Could it be that in the thirties a new dimension of this visual language was forthcoming? If this seems plausible, then Paul Vanderbilt's question, "What can these pictures tell us?" is entirely appropriate.9

Let us go back to the photographs produced in the books of the nineteenth century. Forget the original reason for their existence.

To a degree at least, consider them somewhat collectively and ask, "What can these pictures tell me?" It is quite possible that we can learn much more about how man behaved during the first century of photography than we have yet recognized.

With the newly acquired skill of "reading" pictorialism that developed in the thirties, let us go back and read the books illustrated with photographs and the vast accumulation of pictures of the first one hundred years. With skill as an historian, Michael Lesy did just this in producing Wisconsin Death Trip10  Lesy combines the raw history and the raw documentary evidence of the late nineteenth century town in Wisconsin into an integrated whole that is a powerful, dynamic statement of what life was really like. The pictures, gleaned from the archives Paul Vanderbilt assembled, tell us an incredible tale.

The term "visual literacy" has been bandied about for about a decade now, and it usually evokes a mild snicker. Maybe it is now time to take this term seriously and develop the skill to "read" pictorial matter with the same skill and ability that we have developed for verbal literacy.

  1. F. Jack Hurley, Portrait of a Decade, Baton Rouge, La. Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1972, p. 137.
  2. Theodore M. Brown, Margaret Bourke-White, Photojournalist, Ithaca, N.Y., Andrew Dickson White Museum, 1972, p. 53.
  3. Brown, op. cit. p. 36.
  4. Robert J. Doherty, USA-FSA, "Camera" 41st year, no. 10, October 1962, p. 11.
  5. Robert J. Doherty, Social Documentary Photography, "Bibliothek der Photographie" Lucerne, C. J. Bucher, 1973, unnumbered pages.
  6. Hurley, op. cit. p. 12.
  7. S. H. Steinberg, Five Hundred Years of Printing, Hammondsworth, Middlesex, England. Pelican, 1955, p. 191.
  8. Steinberg, op. cit. p. 194.
  9. Conversation with Paul Vanderbilt, Louisville, Ky. April 1972.
  10. Michael Lesy, Wisconsin Death Trip, New York, Pantheon, 1973.


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