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Being Critical: an Introduction to a Vocabulary of Visual Literacy

by Lindsay Mamchur, 23 August 2019

“We see only what we look at”[37]

the word
'camera' and the mechanical device used to record visual images
a drawing of a camera and the mechanical device used to record visual images
the sound of a mechanical camera shutter and the presence of a camera
This entry will define a compilation of terms that relate to reading visual content. An understanding of this introductory vocabulary will be helpful for deriving meaning from images and, more specifically in the context of this project, it will provide a basis of knowledge that will later be used to engage in reading photographs.

Visual literacy is a competence in reading, interpreting, and creating visual images.[1] In its essence, it is a manner of critical thinking. The concept is most commonly applied to the fields of art and design but it is also related to language, technology and philosophy.[2]
Visual literacy is a concept constructed by groups of viewers to respond to the images and symbols in a specific context. Since different social groups read, interpret and create images in different ways, many forms of visual literacy exist. This entry is influenced by the ideas of a visual literacy developed in Western art culture.

Images are everywhere in today’s world. Being visually literate means viewers are able to examine and speculate the meaning of visual content. Visual literacy is to think and look critically, and to be an informed viewer of our image-pervasive culture.[3]



LINE: marks or planes that are longer than they are wide[4]

SHAPE: a closed line expressed in two dimensions[5]

FORM: the visible appearance of something or a three-dimensional entity[6]

SPACE: the volume or expanse within which visual elements are pictured; space may be described empirically by measures of length, width and depth[7]

TEXTURE: the tactile quality of a material surface[8]

COLOUR: the visible light energy that reflects off of objects; colour may be described in its hue (e.g. red), value (defined below) and intensity (e.g. bright or dull)[9]

VALUE: the tonal gradation of colours; the lightness or darkness of a hue; value is especially important to monochrome imagery[10]

FOCUS: the clearest or sharpest area of the photograph; the area of pronounced emphasis[11]

LIGHT: visible energy evident in areas of highlight or shadow; light condition may describe the time of day, its source, whether it is natural or artificial, whether it is direct or reflected [12]

EXPOSURE: the action in which light reaches the photographic material or sensor in a camera[13]; the more light allowed to reach the film or sensor, the more exposure, the brighter the resulting image; a photograph that shows areas of extreme brightness is often described as ‘overexposed’


COMPOSITION: the arrangement of the elements in an image[14]

PICTURE PLANE: a perspectival term used to describe an imaginary plane perpendicular to the viewer’s line of sight

FOREGROUND: the area of the image closest to the viewer[15]

MIDDLEGROUND: the middle distance of an image

BACKGROUND: the area of the image furthest from the viewer

ANGLE: the placement and orientation of the camera in relation to the subject; an angle may be described as low when the camera is placed below the typical eye level, as on the ground looking up[16]

BALANCE: the distribution of visual elements in an image[17]

CONTOUR: an outline[18]

CONTRAST: a marked visual difference; contrast in value, texture, size, etc.[19]

SETTING: physical surroundings in an image[20]

VANTAGE POINT: the placement and orientation from which a photographer frames their image[21]

REPETITION: (an) element(s) that reoccurs; repetition creates pattern[22]

UNITY: all visual elements in an image working together for a singular effect[23]

PATTERN: regular, repeating elements[24]


LOOKING: passive act of observing[25]

SEEING: conscious perception[26]

NARRATIVE: a representation of experience; the telling of a story

FRAMING: what the photographer decides to include in their photograph[27]

POSITIVISM: a belief in the objective truth of photographs[28]

PICTORIALISM: refers to the Pictorialist photographic movement from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A pictorial image is an image that disputes the photograph’s objectivity and views the photograph as an art form much like painting, drawing or etching. A pictorial image is interested in formal elements of a photograph including composition and tone, and is typically manipulated to achieve a certain stylistic appearance.[29]

REPRESENTATIONAL PHOTOGRAPHY: a type of image created to describe its subject in a realistic and objective way; a representational photograph is not manipulated[30]

STRAIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY: a practice of photography that creates a document of reality engaged with the unique technical ability of the camera; straight photographs share a formal quality and are typically sharply focused and detailed[31]

DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHY: a practice of photography that records people, places and events[32]

STREET PHOTOGRAPHY: a form of documentary photography that takes place in an urban environment and captures scenes of working-class street life[33]

SOCIAL DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHY: a form of documentary photography concerned with social conditions and/or issues[34]

PHOTOJOURNALISM: a form of journalism that employs photographs to communicate a news story; photojournalism and social documentary photography are greatly related[35]

PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPHY: a photographic representation of a person

ENVIRONMENTAL PORTRAIT: a portrait that includes the subject’s immediate surroundings; the setting of an environmental portrait typically expresses something about the individual[36]

LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHY: photography of the natural environment

ARCHITECTURAL PHOTOGRAPHY: photography of architecture and the built environment


FERDINAND DE SAUSSURE (Swiss, 1857 - 1913)

SEMIOTICS: the study of the structure of language as a system of signs founded by Saussure [38]

SIGN: something, a word or image, that stands in for something else, such as an idea of object; an 'acoustic image' created by the signifier and the signified [39]

SIGNIFIER: the word or image that stands in for something [40]

SIGNIFIED: the idea or object associated with the acoustic image [41]

Saussure's system asserts the relationship between the signifier and the signfied is arbitrary. [42]

CHARLES PEIRCE (American, 1839 - 1914)

Peirce theorized three types of signifier-signified relationships: symbolic, iconic, and indexical. [43]

SYMBOLIC SIGN: the signifier and signified are arbitrarily and conventionally related [44]

ICONIC SIGN: the signifier and the signified share a physical resemblance or quality [45]

INDEXICAL SIGN: the signifier and the signified share a direct relation in time and space; the signifier has a causal connection to the signified [46]

Peirce's study of signs reveals that some signifier-signified relationships are based on direct relations while others are socially constructed.

ROLAND BARTHES (French, 1915 - 1980)

Adding to the discussion begun by Saussure, Barthes argues our conception of reality is constructed by language, a system of signs that has been socially constructed itself.  Thus, one knows only of representations of reality as there is no objective reality to serve as the signified to the signifier 'reality.' [47]

STUDIUM: the general dialectical interest in a photograph [48]

PUNCTUM: the emotional and compelling effect in a photograph that demands the attention of the viewer [49]

ERWIN PANOFSKY (Jewish German, 1892 - 1968)

ICONOGRAPHY: the study of the subject matter, the image and symbols,  in a work of art [50]

ICONOLOGY: the study of interpretations and meanings of images and symbols in a work of art; particular interest is given to the references made by the symbols to sources outside of the artwork

Panofsky proposed an iconological method of analysing art. It consists of three levels:

PRE-ICONOGRAPHICAL DESCRIPTION: primary and most basic level of understanding that uses no foreknowledge or analysis [51]

ICONOGRAPHIC ANALYSIS: identification and interpretation of images and symbols [52]

ICONOLOGICAL INTERPRETATION: interpretation of the message of the artwork in consideration of the historical, social and cultural conditions from which it originated [53]

Panofsky suggested an iconological method of analysis could reveal a deeper meaning in an artwork. To Panofsky, an artwork could be understood as a visual language in Saussure's terms, sign, signifier and signified, or in his own equivalent terms, icon, iconography and iconology. [54]

[1] ‘What is Visual Literacy?’ Visual Literacy Today, accessed 12 August 2019,
[2] ‘What is Visual Literacy?’
[3] ‘Why Visual Literacy?’ Toledo Museum of Art, accessed 12 August 2019,
[4] “Elements of Art,” J. Paul Getty Museum, PDF document, accessed 12 August 2019,
[5] “Elements of Art.”
[6] “Elements of Art.”
[7] “Elements of Art.”
[8] “Elements of Art.”
[9] “Elements of Art.”
[10] “Elements of Art,”
[11]“Basic Strategies in Reading Photographs,” Nuovo, accessed 12 August 2019,
[12] “Basic Strategies.”
[13] “What is Exposure?” Photography Life, accessed 12 August 2019,
[14] “Basic Strategies.”
[15] “From Foreground to Background,” J. Paul Getty Museum, accessed 13 August 2019,
[16] “Basic Strategies.”
[17] “Principles of Design,” J. Paul Getty Museum, PDF document, accessed 12 August 2019,
[18] “Basic Strategies.”
[19] “Basic Strategies.”
[20] “Basic Strategies.”
[21] “Basic Strategies.”
[22] “Principles of Design.”
[23] “Principles of Design.”
[24] “Principles of Design.”
[25] John Berger, Ways of Seeing, (London: Penguin Press, 1972), 8.
[26] Berger, Ways, 8.
[27] “Basic Strategies.”
[28] Liz Wells, ed., Photography: A Critical Introduction (Oxon: Routledge, 2015), 29.
[29] Steve Edwards, Photography: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 44-45.
[30] Edwards, Photography, 27.
[31] Wells, Photography, 15.
[32] Edwards, Photography, 27.
[33] Edwards, Photography, 53.
[34] “Documentary Photography,” Tate, accessed 13 August 2019,
[35] Wells, Photography, 80.
[36] “Environmental Portraits,” Manfrotto School of Excellence, published 4 August 2017,
[37] Berger, Ways, 8.
[38] Jae Emerling, Theory for Art History (New York: Routledge, 2005): 34-35.
[39] Emerling, Art History, 34.
[40] Emerling, Art History, 35.
[41] Emerling, Art History, 35.
[42] Emerling, Art History, 36.
[43] Edwards, Photography, 81.
[44] Edwards, Photography, 82.
[45] Edwards, Photography, 81.
[46] Edwards, Photography, 81.
[47] Emerling, Art History, 71.
[48] Emerling, Art History, 75.
[49] Emerling, Art History, 75.
[50] Jeanne Willette, ‘Erwin Panofsky and Iconography, Part Three,’ Art History Unstuffed, published 24 May, 2013,
[51] Yolanda Silva, ‘Art analysis | The Panofsky Method,’, published 11 April 2018,
[52] “Panofsky Method.”
[53] “Panofsky Method.”
[54] Willette, “Erwin Panofsky.”
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