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We are Visually Sophisticated and Visually Illiterate

Film blogger, Tony Zhou, recently published a video breakdown of Michael Bay’s signature style, which he hilariously refers to as  “Bayhem.”...

Film blogger, Tony Zhou, recently published a video breakdown of Michael Bay’s signature style, which he hilariously refers to as  “Bayhem.” As a lover of cinema, I watched with rapt attention as Zhou broke down the technical elements that characterize films like Transformers – rotating shots, multiple moving elements, low angles, etc.

He’s not a fan because Bay’s belief that more is more runs counter to his own tastes. Bay doesn’t just rotate the camera around the subject. He has the subject counter rotate while standing up from a crouched position to emphasize movement and epic-ness. Creating an epic shot without reason (other than “because I can”) leaves us with a story devoid of substance and meaning. The piece had me nodding the whole time, but it wasn’t until 7:21 where things really clicked for me.

Zhou opines, “But in the end, I think the popularity of this style is hugely important. Whether we like it or not, the interesting thing here is that we’re really visually sophisticated, and totally visually illiterate. We can process visual information at a speed that wasn’t common before. But thinking through what an image means? Not so much.”

I’ve challenged the concept of visual literacy before. I previously wrote:

As more people become “photographers,” the more they will come to appreciate photography through regular (often daily) consumption. Flipping through Facebook or Instagram immediately reveals “good” and “bad” photos. And as a consumer devours more photography, they will ideally start to discern between “good” and “great” and all the shades in between.

But in light of what Tony wrote and in observing photographic consumption in society, I’m inclined to change my position. “Literacy” doesn’t just happen. It needs to be taught.

Let’s start with a very simple and common parallel in photography: the filter. When I was a kid, I spent a large chunk of my birthday money buying a Cokin filter set which included a graduated sepia filter and a star filter. In those days, I had to screw on a filter holder to the end of my lens, and then select a filter from a box not so dissimilar from the blood slide box that Dexter kept of his victims.


This isn’t to say that my choice of filters was methodical and carefully planned. Back then, if I saw a shiny object, star filter. Landscape scene, graduated sepia. Nowadays, apps like Instagram and VSCO allow us to apply filters to our images with a simple tap. But can we answer the question: why do we use filters? To induce nostalgia? To emulate film to induce nostalgia? To claim that life is beautiful so #nofilter, but we’re actually using filters? To try to force focus to an element within the photo because we didn’t have the patience or the skill to shoot it right?

We are visually sophisticated. We know how to work our apps to get that perfect combination of saturation, contrast, and brightness. We read MTF charts and discuss chromatic aberration of each new lens. We consume copious amounts of imagery on a daily basis. But do we know why? And are we able to look at a photo and come up with an informed interpretation of why it is or is not successful?

It is easy to be seduced by a glitzy studio shot that has been photoshopped to death, but can we appreciate the context of a remarkable photojournalistic image? Can we spot a fake? Do we understand how focal length affects scene compression?

Because if we cannot, then we will continue to create and consume drivel. This is the evolution in my thinking. I thought that visual literacy would just happen through consumption. But mass consumption leads to appreciation the lowest common denominator. Take the enormously successful popstar Ariana Grande’s newest lyric:

Catchy beat with a nice hook produced by famous Swede using all known formulas for success, but devoid of meaning – or at the very least, proper grammar. We aren’t advancing the oeuvre much with this one, folks.

Michael Bay creates blockbusters, but he will never be considered in the same breath as Scorsese, Kubrick, Hitchcock, et al. It takes an inspired auteur to push the art of filmmaking to the next level. Similarly, to get into the post-filter age, we’re going to have to actually develop a point of view for our photography. We’re going to have to have enough theory and history to understand other people’s photos. Not all the time, mind you. Photography is still fun after all. But it will enrich our appreciation and ability to be more visually literate as photographers.

It’s fun to be sophisticated, but it’s dumb to be illiterate.


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