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In 1853, Eugène Delacroix contracted photographer Eugène Durieu for a set of anatomical studies. As photographer and scholar Franck Van Deren Coke explains in Art Journal in 1962, these artifacts represent “one of the earliest indications of a prominent artist finding in photography a means of extending his vision so as to see the world in a different manner.”

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Delacroix experienced an intervention of sorts, one that changed his way of seeing the human body and the world of art. The story goes that Delacroix and Durieu collaborated on these nude portraits as studies for future paintings. Delacroix had such a strange reaction upon receiving the images that he showed several friends, watching for similar responses. First, they viewed the photos, which they said showed bodies that were “poorly built and oddly shaped in places” and “not very attractive generally.” Then, Delacroix handed them woodcut prints, idealized nudes by Marcantonio Raimondi: “We experienced a feeling of revulsion, almost disgust, for the incorrectness, the mannerism, the lack of naturalness, despite the quality of style—the only thing one could admire. Yet at that moment we could no longer admire it.”

Delacroix’s friends suddenly found the familiar engravings unsettling, grotesque. Worse, photography was still so unnerving as to be no replacement for the arts it ruined. The story is aptly described in Cabinet magazine: “For an awkward transitional period, both new and old norms were insecure. Photography, as Delacroix put it, had begun by rendering a ‘detestable’ service. ‘Without completely satisfying us,’ he complained, ‘it spoils the masterpieces.’ ”

We have similar stories all throughout history: the moment when a perception—whether a literal way of seeing or a figurative mode of thinking—is assaulted and fundamentally shifts, a non-reversible alteration, a displacement from one’s old ways. Western society has seen plenty of moments like these, moments where a perceptive or critical threshold has been crossed.

* * *

Recently, literacy and education circles have been working with the idea of “threshold concepts.” The theory was cemented sometime in the past decade and culminated in the publication of the “Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education” by the Association of College & Research Libraries in 2015. The framework describes notions that are “portals,” “a transformation within the learner”—radical (to teenagers) but now familiar concepts like “authority is contextual” and “scholarship is a conversation over time,” shocks to one’s core modes of apprehending the world.

If we were to pin a “threshold” moment on Delacroix and his nudes, we might go with “the ideal often clashes violently with the truth” or “reality is vulgar, but so is the distortion of reality in art”—you can come up with a few of your own, I’m sure.

If we look through scholarship on education, we see many examples of such threshold concepts. The University of Adelaide’s Joy McEntee, for instance, argues that, in film studies, an insistence on spoiler alerts indicates an approach to film as entertainment, whereas serious film theory necessitates discussing the ending. The cry of “You gave away the ending,” she writes, “…was also symptomatic of a real anxiety that learning the ways of knowing I was presenting was threatening. It marked the birth of a fear that cultivating the kind of analytic detachment required to succeed in the course might entail a loss of pleasure in going to the movies.”

This analytic approach to film requires a trained eye for visual tropes, an understanding of camera mechanics, a knowledge of precedents and precursors, and the willingness to detach from the storyline’s immersive embrace. McEntee refers to the development of this film literacy as a loss of “innocence” and the process as involving “discomfort,” requiring a negotiation of resistance. It’s not too far off from the “detestable service” that photography rendered for Delacroix.

* * *

The rise of free public-domain digital imagery, available not just for viewing and analyzing but modifying and reusing, represents another such threshold.

Museum and gallery executives tend to use a certain amount of hyperbole when talking about sharing image collections with the public. An entry from the Getty’s blog in 2013 puts it in grandiose terms: “Today the Getty becomes an even more engaged digital citizen, one that shares its collections, research, and knowledge more openly than ever before. We’ve launched the Open Content Program to share, freely and without restriction, as many of the Getty’s digital resources as possible….The Getty was founded on the conviction that understanding art makes the world a better place, and sharing our digital resources is the natural extension of that belief.”

Leonardo da Vinci - Ginevra de' Benci
Rembrandt van Rijn - Self-Portrait (1659)
Edouard Manet - Luncheon on the Grass "Edouard Manet - Luncheon on the Grass - Google Art Project" by Édouard Manet
Auguste Renoir French, 1841 - 1919 Oarsmen at Chatou, 1879 oil on canvas overall: 81.2 x 100.2 cm (31 15/16 x 39 7/16 in.) framed: 104.1 x 123.5 x 9.5 cm (41 x 48 5/8 x 3 3/4 in.) Gift of Sam A. Lewisohn 1951.5.2
Georges Seurat French, 1859 - 1891 Seascape at Port-en-Bessin, Normandy, 1888 oil on canvas Gift of the W. Averell Harriman Foundation in memory of Marie N. Harriman 1972.9.21

The open-content movement provides high-resolution, free-to-download digital versions of some of mankind’s best works, often subject to nothing more than a requirement to cite the source when publishing or posting. The Getty and the National Gallery of Art have digitized large swaths of their public-domain works and put them online, and hundreds of smaller institutions are in the process of opening up their collections. Open content is the latest conception of shared cultural works as a public right, complementing other sources of free-to-use materials online.

Launched in 2008, the Library of Congress’s Flickr Commons project allowed for tons of mid-quality digitizations to be uploaded under a “no known copyright restrictions” license (code for “this is either an orphan work or in the public domain—we’re not really sure”). The Library also asked users to attach their own descriptive text to the images. This metadata, or “folksonomy” (a user-generated taxonomy) helped identify subject matters, locations, times, people, and other tidbits that might help track down intellectual-property owners. Most archives don’t have the resources to create item-level descriptions, so these crowd-sourced research efforts can mean the difference between materials being certified public domain and languishing in copyright limbo.

Wikimedia Commons, a volunteer-run repository of imagery, sound, and video, brings together material from a variety of sources: open content, public domain, and works by living artists who freely relinquish their rights through Creative Commons licenses. We’re also seeing great new interfaces to work with these collections: Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum offers one called Rijksstudio, which lets users edit, crop, and otherwise modify their high-resolution digitizations, so they can be printed out as everything from wallpaper to car decals.

These innovations offer not just new ways of seeing, but also new ways of accessing, manipulating, and reusing visual content. What we’re in need of now is a “visual literacy” that employs competencies and “thresholds” similar to information literacy, but for media access and use, tools and formats, photo manipulation, image quality, copyright and infringement, and, of course, critical and historical analysis of genres and tropes.

* * *

The term “visual literacy” has been in use for at least 50 years, from a 1959 exploration of student learning through media to a 1966 insistence that “aesthetic quality pervades all experiences,” to a more pedagogical approach from 1976. Codifying the idea of a “visually literate person” took much longer. The Association of College & Research Libraries released its “Visual Literacy Standards in 2011. The Art Libraries Society of North America published a similar document, “Information Competencies for Students in Design Disciplines,” in 2006. And the International Visual Literacy Association produces a peer-reviewed journal full of eclectic looks at aspects of visual culture, though it offers little guidance on teaching or assessing visual literacy.

But researchers around the world are collecting empirical evidence on how people articulate visual-resource needs and how artists, designers, and cultural-heritage workers can help them.

Teresa Slobuski, for example, asked a group of undergraduates to search for art pieces from a variety of periods and styles in two image databases. She then assessed their success on several fronts—the number and accuracy of results, their ease of use with the databases’ search functions, and the navigability of displayed results. Slobuski concluded that the average undergrad would likely require the help of an information professional to collect relevant search results.

Joan Beaudoin and Jessica Evans Brady talked to architects, artists, art historians, and archaeologists about their visual inspiration and research needs. They found that half of the participants considered a Google Images search to be the best resource. More popular than image databases, Flickr, books, magazines, or even personal image collections, the one stop shop that is Google Images satisfied the need for reference material.

Beaudoin and Brady’s result has worrisome implications. Should repositories like the Digital Public Library of America and the Internet Archive work to increase their items’ findability on Google or try to compete? Will images be forever doomed to a decontextualized, attribution-free representation via Google?

In 2010, the University of Michigan’s Paul Conway wrote that the “digitization of archival photographs comprises a means of communication between image and user in which the archivist, as digitizer, system builder, and interface architect, plays a fundamental mediating role.” Conway’s discussion of representation harkens back to Delacroix’s shock at discovering how photography made the trusted old pictorial form seem grotesque and untrustworthy. However, these “detestable” losses of “pleasure” may be a necessary stage in developing visual literacy for the digital age—a mind at least savvy enough to distrust misleading infographics.

It’s not necessary for everyone to rush out to learn the difference between a daguerreotype and a calotype. But it would be nice if people with Tumblrs knew how to reverse image search and grab proper attribution, or if people printing out photos for hanging on their walls could choose appropriate dimensions for the image quality. Easy access to free photo-editing tools such as GIMP is a good start, as are efforts to educate people about unwittingly signing away their image rights to social media corporations. It seems clear that our increasingly media-laden world—a world where people are equipped to make and share their own creations—demands assessing and improving visual literacy earlier in life, for everyone.


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Art Journal, Vol. 21, No. 3 (Spring, 1962), pp. 172-174
Published by: College Art Association
Australasian Journal of American Studies, Vol. 26, No. 2 (December, 2007), pp. 136-152
Published By: Australia and New Zealand American Studies Association
Audio Visual Communication Review, Vol. 7, No. 2 (Spring, 1959), pp. 83-96
Published by: Springer
Studies in Art Education, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Autumn, 1966), pp. 1-2
Published by: National Art Education Association
Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 10, No. 3/4, Bicentennial Issue (July–Oct., 1976), pp. 195-200
Published by: University of Illinois Press
Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America, Vol. 30, No. 2 (Fall, 2011), pp. 49-55
Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the Art Libraries Society of North America
Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America, Vol. 30, No. 2 (Fall, 2011), pp. 24-36
Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the Art Libraries Society of North America
The American Archivist, Vol. 73, No. 2 (Fall/Winter, 2010), pp. 425-462
Published by: Society of American Archivists