“Character is higher than intellect. Thinking is the function. Living is the functionary… A great soul will be strong to live, as well as strong to think.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson

From Wikipedia: Visual literacy is the ability to interpret, negotiate, and make meaning from information presented in the form of an image, extending the meaning of literacy, which commonly signifies interpretation of a written or printed text. Visual literacy is based on the idea that pictures can be “read” and that meaning can be through a process of reading.

I should first state, my thoughts on this subject are in addition to the physical experience one has when in their chosen creative space. I feel strongly that the physical and emotional experience are paramount to the creative process. With that said, this thing of visual literacy has become intriguing to me.

How does one increase their visual literacy? What can we do to help us understand the impact of our own visual literacy? My interest is primarily the arts. Photography, drawing, painting, sculpture, print making, architecture, video, to name what immediately comes to mind. Though it may seem somewhat daunting, it would be helpful to simplify this best as possible. Those of you who have read what I present here over the years should be aware I write what I am interested in, many times the subjects are presented as personal insights to thoughts I have a desire to explore deeper. The act of putting my thoughts down in a written form is one way I explore these desires to learn and acquire knowledge of myself. My purpose is to explore the nuances as it were of visual understanding. This can range from the dramatic to the subtle.

Beyond Interpretation

Upon doing my own research on visual literacy one statement did resonate with me. The statement that: “Visual literacy is how a person interprets something, a scene or picture within the context of their own personality”. That one statement makes clear how personal visual literacy is or should be for each of us.

As I began to think about and explore this subject I found myself playing out examples in my mind. I approached this initially through my own imagination. Closing my eyes and imagining my ideal scene. In my case it is almost always of a natural environment.

What I found was a desire to place things in specific places. Places that made the scene visually comforting to me. In other words, I immediately began composing in my mind. Composition became the important factor. It did not matter what items I was composing. In my natural environment it could be trees, rivers, deserts, mountains, oceans, etc. It surprised me to discover the important part was how I laid the scene out in my head. It was never a scrambled scene with items put anywhere. They had to be where I wanted them to be before it felt right.

Upon doing this from time to time as I worked on this writing I noticed it was never the same way twice. Each time my hypothetical scene could take on new and different items and subjects. The subjects didn’t seem to matter, how I felt about the scene was all that mattered. That is to say, my visual understanding aided in created a “feeling”.

When I discovered this I felt as if I just discovered the secret to making great visual art. Then, just as quickly I realized this was no new discovery or secret. It was what visual art (possibly all art) was meant to be. It is what artists for millennia have strive for. Possibly their entire life, successfully or not. Creation of art that evokes actual feelings. Emotions of pleasures, joy, happiness, or sorrows.

I am not qualified to state what the most important aspect of art is, but one very strong element, to me, is composition. I believe you could photograph a box of nails, and if the composition was pleasing the image would be as well. At least that is my theory.


I have mentioned before how much I love color. Color is emotionally, and physiologically stimulating to me. One may think black and white photography would have no appeal to me given my affection to color. That is not the case. I have viewed and enjoy many black and white works of photography and enjoyed them tremendously. This now makes much more sense to me with my discovery of how important composition is to me as well.

We now have the ability to photograph anything at anytime and for any reason. We pride ourselves with the technical ability to capture the most obscure, mundane, or previously un-photographable things. Why? Because we can. There is a plethora of teaching material available now. One can learn every setting their camera has. And furthermore they can employ all of them in their creation of a photograph. Why? Again, because they can.

Loss Of Visual Literacy

We wade through mountains of photo’s in the digital form. To the point to where it may be extremely hard for a typical viewer to distinguish between good or poor photographs. I would go further and state that it is impossible for a typical viewer to make such distinguish at the rate in which the view them. Typically a few seconds then off to the next eye catching photo. It is as if most do not care about visual literacy. Never giving thought to what appeals to them and why. I find this not only a sad state, but somewhat disturbing for the future of photographic art.

In a world where there is a rush to get images made, uploaded, and start racking up “likes”. I hope the age old story of the Tortoises And The Hare holds true for photography as well.

Of all our senses our sight may be the most cherished though we give little thought to it. Most even take it for granted. Think of the sights you see and how they influence your everyday. Can you understand why they influence you the way they do? It may be worth exploring, even nurturing. Visual literacy, a terrible thing to waste.

Brad Mangas Photography

©Brad Mangas

Additional Posts:

Work That You Want

The Moment Is Everything

In The Beginning