Visual Literacy

Michael Lesy

Journal of American History, 94 (June 2007) 143–53

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By now everyone knows that photographs do not tell simple truths. Especially if “truth” is defined as a state of certainty, a fixed point, euclidean, trigonometric. A point difficult to reach, but conclusive.

Photographs are different. Photographs are polymorphously perverse entities. Protean data. Paradoxical both/and creatures. They resemble Tweedledum and Tweedledee standing at the crossroads in Wonderland, pointing in opposite directions, rolling their eyes and grinning fiendishly while Alice, as earnest as a historian, asks in which direction the truth, disguised as a white rabbit, went.

The anthropologist Clifford Geertz talked about “deep structures” and “thick description,” the pursuit of meanings beneath meanings, arrived at by an intense study of fecund particulars. “Doing anthropology,” Geertz wrote, “is like trying to read a manuscript, foreign, faded, full of ellipses, incoherencies, suspicious emendations, and tendentious commentaries . . . written not in conventionalized graphs of sound, but in transient examples of shaped behavior.” The founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, in his heroic selfanalysis, The Interpretation of Dreams, spoke of “manifest content” and “latent content.” “Manifest,” said Freud, is what the dreamer saw and heard, what he witnessed; “latent” is the “dream work” itself, its multiple meanings, condensed, displaced, transformed, and revised at the very moment, in the very act, of being remembered.1

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Self-portrait of Angelo Rizzuto, New York City. August 1957.
Photo by Angelo Rizzuto. Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Anthony Angel Collection, 57-8-12.
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New York City rooftops, with Sofia Brothers Fireproof Storage Warehouse building on the left with the sign “U.S. Bonded and Free.” September 1959.
Photo by Angelo Rizzuto. Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Anthony Angel Collection, 59-9-18.

What if photographs were analogous to Freud’s dreams and Geertz’s “manuscript, foreign, faded, full of ellipses”? What if Geertz’s “deep structures” and Freud’s “dream work” alluded to the bones of meaning that move beneath every photograph’s rosy skin? To dissect is every historian’s temptation. But what if a photograph is wedded, form and content, aesthetic object and encoded information? What if the only way to understand a photograph fully is to see it whole, to respond to it empathically and analytically, to experience it in order to decipher it?

Early in the history of printing, the educated elite communicated complex ideas in books illustrated with woodcuts and accompanied by brief, enigmatic texts. Such images, with or without texts, were called emblems. Such images seemed to show one thing—for instance, a queen holding a sieve full of water, from which no water leaked—when, to those who had eyes to see, the images revealed something more, in this example, Queen Bess, Elizabeth Regina, England’s Virgin Queen, whole but not intact, officially, but not actually, virginal.

Emblems, rebuses, picture puzzles—what if those arcane things were also analogous to photographs? Images, scattered with clues. Images built around symbols. Allusive images. Visual texts that have to be interrogated, unpacked, unfolded, opened up, and opened out.


The multiple truths embedded in a single photograph—public and private fears and assumptions, aspirations and convictions that lie just beneath an image’s surface—are like the parts of a machine, waiting to be activated by a viewer’s gaze. Blink once, blink twice, look, then look again, and the machine begins to transmit messages.

The classic way to decipher and then to use an image’s quicksilver meanings—the “history in art” method—is to build a dike around them, to channel them, using an image’s contexts. Knowledge of the who, what, where, when, and why of an image, knowledge of the circumstances of a photograph’s making and maker, its users, promulgators, and audience, will permit an investigator to understand and use an image in a scholarly way. Pennies in one pile, dimes in another, nickels here, quarters there. A jar full of loose change becomes a bank deposit. Or a monograph.

Solving one scholarly problem—the need to sort out an image’s multiple meanings— opens a clear view of others. No matter how mundane, utilitarian, or circumscribed a photograph’s origins may be, an image is not a sentence. Images are forms of sensory data, processed by the right brain. No matter how judicious and objective a historian fancies herself, a photograph will elicit projections and associations in her, stir her imagination, before she even notices what is happening to her. A photograph “is a function, an experience, not a thing,” said Minor White, a mid-twentieth-century photographer whom Walt Whitman would have recognized as a fellow poet. “Cameras are far more impartial than their owners and employers,” White went on to say. “Projection and empathy [are] natural attributes in man. . . . the photograph invariably functions as a mirror of at least some part of the viewer.”2

Even more challenging: The photographs that social and cultural historians are likely to find interesting—images that reveal more about their makers, first users, and audiences than such people ever intended—do not exist in modest numbers. The problem is not that there are too few images, but too many. Historical photographs exist in huge numbers, in well-ordered collections, presided over by knowledgeable curators. More and more of the collections are being digitized. Overload and saturation are only a mouse click away.

One example: in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress there are 164,000 black-and-white photographs made between 1935 and 1945 by photographers employed by the Farm Security Administration and the Office of War Information. The online collection “America from the Great Depression to World War II” is searchable using place names, subject categories, and the names of the photographers who made the images.3 Another example: in the California Museum of Photography, housed in the li brary of the University of California at Riverside, there are 350,000 “Stereographs of the Americas” made between 1892 and 1963 by the Keystone View Company of Meadville, Pennsylvania. The online “Keystone-Mast Collection” is keyword searchable.4 And, as a final example: in the New York Public Library’s Digital Gallery, there are 26,000 color photographs, made in 1999, of every block and neighborhood south of Canal Street in Manhattan. The images were made by a conceptual artist named Dylan Stone. The online collection is called “Drugstore Photographs; or, A Trip along the Yangtze River, 1999.”5

Daunting as the size, variety, and accessibility of those collections may be, they are just three examples of the many archival photographic collections that exist in libraries, museums, and state historical societies throughout the United States. Taken together, those image collections—online or not—constitute a sea of information.

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Man seated on a New York City subway reading a magazine with a small dog in a shopping bag; the sign on the door reads “Passengers Are Forbidden.” October 1961.
Photo by Angelo Rizzuto. Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Anthony Angel Collection, 61-10-26.
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A boy kneels on a New York City stoop solving a puzzle. July 1962.
Photo by Angelo Rizzuto. Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Anthony Angel Collection, 62-7-63.

For more than fifty years, such collections of historical photographs have been accessioned, cataloged, conserved, and transferred from one form of information storage, retrieval, and access to another. Generations of archivists have lived out their professional lives moving images from file drawers to microfilm reels, from microfilm to microfiche, from microfiche to laser discs, and from laser discs to hard drives. For fifty years, those professionals have stood at the ready, waiting for scholars to ask them for assistance. Instead, amateur genealogists ask them for pictures of ancestors or hometowns; free-lance researchers employed by publishers ask them for illustrations. Few, very few, scholars ask curators to help them explore the whole of any of those collections—collections that embody the deep structures and dense descriptions that typify epic human documents.


Why? One answer may be self-preservation. No matter how well-motivated and wellintentioned a scholar may be, no matter how curious or earnest that historian is, entering and immersing oneself in any large collection of images can be overwhelming. Even if a researcher were adequately trained—such training will be discussed below—prolonged photo research, sustained hour after hour, day after day, image after image, produces a state of wakeful dreaming that is, to say the least, disorienting. Historians, trained to read and write—and only to read and write—from an early age avoid photo archives the way people who do not know how to swim avoid the water.

Lessons learned from the practice of photography will enable historians to enter an image archive, sort through it, select an array of representative images and then edit them to form sequences that resemble the storyboards of films. Through the use of juxtaposition, counterpoint, and thematic variation, visual narratives can be built to reflect and comment on the sum of images in even the largest archival collections. Such visual narratives use single images as primary quotes much as scholarly essays use quoted excerpts to plead their case. The interstitial comments, explanations, and arguments that frame quoted excerpts in an essay are not missing from a photo sequence. Instead, if the image progressions of a sequence are well planned and well constructed, the arguments and explanations that usually appear in print will play out in the mind of the sequence’s “reader.”

The question is: Why should scholars—literate, articulate, erudite scholars—especially scholars interested in photo research, need to learn to take photographs? No one has ever suggested that art historians interested in particular painters, printmakers, or sculptors practice their subjects’ media before writing about them and their art. Archives are archives. Research is research. The world is awash with images. Cameras are easy to use. Cameras are everywhere. Everyone has taken snapshots. Why waste time in an elementary course devoted to a popular medium?

The answer is: Most scholars—textually so proficient—are visually illiterate. Basic visual literacy can be acquired by reading and looking, but the visual language of photography, like any other language, is best learned by “speaking” it. Speaking it in the presence of someone who is fluent—an instructor. Speaking it in the presence of other beginners— the photo class itself. To be specific, the skills and habits of mind acquired by taking photographs on assignment in the real world are applicable to the “taking” of photographs while doing research in an archive. Decide to take a picture in the real world? Press the shutter. Decide to take a picture from a file in an archive? Pluck it out if it is a print; point and click if it is a digital replica. The same “eye” informs both “takings.” Aesthetic judgment, visual acuity, visual memory and recall, the ability to look actively and intently at one image after another—those skills are practiced by every photographer and every photo researcher.

There is more: A digital camera can “make” a picture at almost the instant it takes it. A computer can command a printer to make a hard copy of a digital image the moment a photo researcher points and clicks his mouse. Taking and making have become almost one and the same. The result: Photographers and photo researchers can harvest huge numbers of images. Those images must be edited. Such editing requires similar visual skills—acuity, memory, recall, and discrimination—no matter where the image was made or found. How does anyone, photographer or researcher, know what to keep and what to throw away?

Photographers are informed by their experiences while on assignment—and by their reading and conversation before they go out into the field. Photo researchers have done their own due diligence before entering an archive. The choices they make during their research are informed by their knowledge of the who, what, where, when, and why of a body of work. Contextual knowledge informs both photographers and photo researchers before and after they go looking.

The worst fear of any historian who has never practiced photography is that an image is full of so many meanings and subject to so many interpretations that it can never be called upon to testify, can never be used to prove or disprove anything. Depending on who is looking and when, an image changes its meaning: Look now, see a rose. Look again, see a butterfly. How can a scholar use the equivalent of a Rorschach blot to reveal anything except the state of mind of some viewer? Such fears will be allayed by the “workshop/ critique” portions of a photo course. Built into a course’s curriculum are classes set aside for students to show their work and for others to respond to it. Because all work must be edited before being shown, students are obliged to look at their images from a critical distance before presenting them to others. Some workshop/critiques are as quiet as Quaker meetings. Some responses are as opaque as, “I liked that.” (Instructors always ask, “Why?”) Some critiques are self-referential monologues, some are diatribes. The best critiques are spirited conversations that engage the whole class. The worst are charades of mutual nonaggression.

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Self-portrait of Angelo Rizzuto, New York City. December 1957.
Photo by Angelo Rizzuto. Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Anthony Angel Collection, 57- 12-6.
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New York City. June 1959.
Photo by Angelo Rizzuto. Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Anthony Angel Collection, 59-6-14.

No matter how candid or evasive, how articulate or inarticulate a critique may be, workshops provide opportunities for people to test their work, to discover whether their images send the intended messages. An informal consensus of thought, feeling, and opinion helps prove or disprove such intentions. During the call and response of a well-run workshop, an image’s meanings become visible—or they do not. During a workshop, meanings attributed to an image may expand or contract, increase or decrease; they may move one centimeter to the left or two centimeters to the right on a graph of thought and feeling. But though meanings may appear to move, they move within a range—not off the chart. Critiques will calm a scholar’s worst fears: Images do have multiple meanings, but “multiple” is not “indefinite”; “many” are not “countless.” Framed by knowledge of context, confirmed by onlookers, an image’s meanings cohere.

Fieldwork and classroom experiences help develop a scholar’s visual fluency. That fluency enables a scholar to construct sequences. The latent content of a set of images—the thoughts and feelings that even disparate images share and provoke—consists of the common elements that permit photographs to be juxtaposed to form visual narratives. Said the photographer Minor White:

A sequence of photographs is like a cinema of stills. The time and space between photographs is filled by the beholder, first . . . from within himself, then from what he can read in the implication of [the photograph’s] design . . . and [then from] any symbolism that might grow within the subject [of the photograph] itself. . . . meaning appears in the space between the images, in the mood they raise in the beholder.6

One question remains: Why should photo researchers, historians in particular, use sequences to communicate what they have learned while exploring an archive? The answer has to do with the number of images, the profusion of images that exist in archival photo collections. Could one well-chosen image represent an entire collection? Could two? Could a dozen? How then to display those dozen images? How best to convey their meanings?

A photo sequence uses visual language to argue a point. Sequences permit scholars to “show” succinctly rather than “tell” redundantly. They permit scholars to escape the trap of “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Sequences do not prevent scholars from making explicit, written arguments. Visual narratives only appear to let pictures do their own talking. By constructing a well-made sequence from well-chosen images, a scholar can convey ideas before anyone reads her first sentence.


Visual literacy, acquired through the practice of photography, will enable historians to explore archival photo collections located in libraries, museums, and state historical societies throughout the United States. Those archives, hidden in plain sight, are treasure troves of experiential information—dense, sensuous, variegated, almost endless in their depth, breadth, and extent. Whatever could once be seen was photographed. Whatever was once photographed now resides in those archives. Their image collections are like vanished worlds inhabited by ghosts. Those ghosts were—are—our ancestors. Can any sentence, no matter how lucid, no matter how eloquent, enable a historian to look into the eyes of our common dead?

Visual fluency, acquired through the practice of sequence building, will enable historians to communicate whatever they may learn in their explorations, using the very images they have discovered and retrieved. The world is indeed awash with images. It is time—past time—for many more historians to use images to help us all understand our shared pasts.


In 1967 a recluse who called himself the Little Angel died in New York and left 60,000 photographs and $50,000 to the Library of Congress, on the condition that the library publish a book of his work—a book that he never completed. The library dutifully published a book bound with staples, illustrated with perhaps 60 indifferently printed reproductions of the dead man’s pictures.7 It then proceeded to spend his money, buying the work of some of the most eminent and innovative photographers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. What it did with his prints was to store them in the subbasement of an annex, where it left them, like bones in an ossuary, to suffer the benign neglect of optimum temperature and humidity.

A historian writing a new version of the American past suitable for college survey courses asked me to unearth photographs that would not simply illustrate his chapters but also promote speculation among his readers. In the course of that research I found myself sitting at a crowded table in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress, asking a middle-aged curator, who stooped and stammered like a kid with growing pains, whether he had any photographs from the fifties. He went to look, and when he came back, he was rolling a loaded mail cart. Its trays were stuffed with the lifework of Angelo Rizzuto.

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Self-portrait of Angelo Rizzuto, New York City. August 1958.
Photo by Angelo Rizzuto. Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Anthony Angel Collection, 58-8-6.
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New York City intersection. January 1964.
Photo by Angelo Rizzuto. Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Anthony Angel Collection, 64-1-6.

I began to scan the contact sheets, looking at their subjects. (Contact sheets, made by placing developed film onto specially coated paper—putting it in contact with the paper—often show successive images from the same roll of film.) I had no magnifying glass, but most of the frames that were clear enough could be read at a glance. I started a list. By the end of the day it had turned into a prose poem: street fights, bums, and sideshows; cityscapes seen from above; cats and sleeping children; men talking and men reading; circus acrobats, sleepers, Sunday painters, and couples arguing; skaters, lovers, cooks, vendors, parks, graveyards, little boys alone, and women walking; subway riders, mannequins, and movie marquees; taxis, street preachers, speakers, and sign painters; drunks, self-portraits, street festivals, and dead men; empty streets and scratched-out pictures; nuns, dogs, fat men, and statues; more cityscapes and more self-portraits; Hasidim, junkmen, and parades; little girls and women of all ages; cops and grotesques. The imagery seemed so dense and pungent that I stopped thinking about the historical research I was there to conduct and began to think about the man and the pictures he had made. It seemed that I was looking at the work of a man who had decided to record the whole world.

Just before Rizzuto died, he confessed to someone that he was working on a book that would be a visual record of New York City, three hundred years after it had passed from the Dutch to the English. It was to be modeled on The Iconography of Manhattan Island, 1498–1909 by Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes.8 Rizzuto was going to call his book “Little Old New York” by Anthony Angel. He died before he finished. But why had he done what he had done? Why had he persisted? To what end? For what reason? How had he survived? The curator knew very little. Rizzuto had been born in Deadwood, South Dakota, in 1906. He had been reared in Omaha, Nebraska, and graduated from a little college in Ohio in 1931. After his father died, he fought with his brothers over the estate and went to Denver in 1941 to resolve the conflict. While he was there, he tried to kill himself. When he was discharged from a mental hospital six months later, he enlisted in the army. Seven months after that, he was given an honorable medical discharge. Rizzuto moved to New York City sometime in the mid-1940s, bought a brownstone on Fifty-first Street between First and Second avenues, and began to take photographs, going out every day at 2 p.m. with his cameras. His next-door neighbor, Peter Sutherland, appeared to be his only friend. In 1959, when Rizzuto’s older brother Frank died without a will, he began writing letters to the attorney administering Frank’s estate and to many others, including state legislators and judges, arguing that Frank’s estate was dominated by insane judges of the Denver, Colorado, courts and Communists. The estate was settled out of court, but he remained firm in his belief that Jewish Communists were conspiring against him until his death.

For months, I had been collecting accounts and chronicles, rumors and suppositions, inventories and lists of documents related to Rizzuto. No matter how well I authenticated the facts, no matter how well-articulated the parts were, all I had was a body that could neither move nor speak. Perhaps I could summon his ghost. I began by looking, once more, at Rizzuto’s contact sheets, slowly at first and then, as my eyes and mind grew accustomed to their cluttered and recurrent detail, more and more quickly. I noted, again, his repetitions and his methods: 40 pictures of the urn in front of the New York Public Library, 30 pictures of the statue of Christopher Columbus in Columbus Circle, 250 pictures of the Statue of Liberty. Women photographed constantly, either with telephotos or with cameras mounted on tripods and positioned on street corners, their shutters triggered by hand-held cable releases. He also photographed himself. From one self-portrait to the next, his pain changes to anger, and his anger to a rage so monstrous that the man himself seems to change into a demon who stares into a pit where, far below, foolish men in costumes march in a military parade while innocent boys play stickball in the street.

Somehow, without knowing it, I began to memorize his contact sheets and, in my mind, to splice together their rows of images as if they were segments of videotape. Instead of reading their frames, one at a time, I began to run whole lengths of them, and as I ran them, I began to hear Rizzuto reciting garbled bits of his life’s poetry. Viewed one at a time, his images were neither complex nor ambiguous: bums looked like bums, sailors looked like sailors, buildings like buildings, and sorrow like sorrow. But viewed in lengths, strung together in sequences composed over a period of years, his juxtaposed images formed rhymes, and those rhymes formed patterns with permutations as various as those of a kaleidoscope.

What is so striking about Rizzuto (and his contact sheets) is the way his self-portraits intermingle and play in counterpoint with his cityscapes and street-level photos. The pictures he made were acts of homage and appropriation, elements in an iconography of a city permeated by a self. He believed he was recording the physical shape of an outer world when, in fact, he was gathering evidence to serve as a talisman against his own despair. That evidence of a shared moral predicament he found in the faces of the countless women he photographed. Occasionally he found evidence of hope in the gestures of lovers, the grace of animals, and the games of children. By photographing himself, Rizzuto affirmed his own presence; by photographing the suffering of others as well as by recording the awesome shape of a man-made world, Rizzuto used his camera to lessen the pain of loneliness and to transcend his fear and anger. He used his camera to confirm himself, to enter and discover the world, and then to rise above it. His loneliness, his persistent vision, and his transcendence are what he shares with all other photographers who have embarked on solitary quests that have transformed and restored them to themselves.

Michael Lesy is professor of literary journalism at Hampshire College. The final portion of this essay and the sequence of photographs were adapted from Angel’s World: The New York Photographs of Angelo Rizzuto (New York, 2006).

Readers may contact Lesy at mlesy [at] hampshire [dot] edu.

1 Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (New York, 1973), 10; Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, trans. A. A. Brill (1910; Whitefish, 2004), 111, 115–16, 181.

2 Minor White, “Equivalence: The Perennial Trend,” psa Journal, 29 (July 1963), 17, 20.

3 “America from the Great Depression to World War II: Photographs from the fsa-owi, 1935–1945,” Library of Congress: American Memory,

4 “Permanent Collections: Keystone-Mast Collection,” University of California, Riverside / California Museum of Photography,

5 “Drugstore Photographs; or, A Trip along the Yangtze River, 1999: Lower Manhattan Block-by-Block,” New York Public Library,

6 Minor White, Mirrors, Messages, Manifestations: Photographs and Writings, 1939–68 (1969; Millerton, 1982), 63.

7 Angelo Rizzuto, Angelo Rizzuto’s New York: “In Little Old New York, by Anthony Angel” (Washington, 1972).

8 Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes, The Iconography of Manhattan Island, 1498–1909: Compiled from Original Sources and Illustrated by Photo-Intaglio Reproductions of Important Maps, Plans, Views, and Documents in Public and Private Collections (6 vols., New York, 1915–1928).

Michael Lesy, “Visual Literacy,” Journal of American History, 94 (June 2007) 143–53.