Landscape Photography Exhibition Encourages Visual Literacy

Landscape Photography Exhibition Encourages Visual Literacy

“The Eye is a Door” by photographer, Anne Whiston Spirn as Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, MA.

From now through the end of August, the Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton, MA will be home to a major exhibition of works by Anne Whiston Spirn. Spirn, a renowned author and photographer, has for decades drawn connections between her photographs and the work she does as both teacher and scholar in the field of landscape architecture.

A graduate of Radcliffe College and the University of Pennsylvania, currently teaching at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Ms. Spirn thinks of photography as a way to more deeply understand landscapes (and all associated fields like geology, anthropology, history, etc).

Her work promotes visual literacy – “the ability to read and analyze visual information” – through her thoughtful use of artistic strategies like composition and framing, the juxtaposition of natural and man-made structures, and focused attention to colors and textures.  She is always looking for the unusual and unexpected in her shots – even months and years later – and strongly feels that each photograph is comprised of much, much more than the fraction of a second it took to actually expose the film to light. “Photography [is…] a condensed telling,” as she says in a recording of a lecture given at MIT in 2008. Each photograph is a souvenir of the minutes, hours, perhaps even days, in which she explored, took notes, analyzed, and interpreted a given landscape: the better to understand the events that led to its current existence, to understand what about it makes it special, visually or otherwise. “I’m drawn to photograph a particular landscape as one may be drawn to photograph a person; to capture its distinctive spirit, to show its history, to show the contexts that shape it,” she says. “Landscapes speak to me. They are living and dynamic, not static or silent, but full of dialogue and drama; rocks, trees, and rivers are actors, not props.” While out with her camera, she has learned to notice, identify, and even anticipate the natural processes occurring around her. The experience of learning about nature through close observation, combined with her extensive field notes and the sheer amount of time she has spent outside, has aided Spirn in both her personal understanding of the natural world and her professional design sensibilities as a landscape architect.

Close observation of nature and natural processes played an important role in the development of Spirn’s “visual literacy,” a concept that the Smith College Museum of Art also values. The interpretive text and themed, docent-led tours at SCMA both utilize a similar educational framework: Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), developed by Abigail Housen and Philip Yenawine. This framework focuses on three simple questions:

  1. What’s going on [in this picture/artwork]?
  2. What do you see that makes you say that?
  3. What more can you find?

These questions encourage open-ended answers that draw from the viewer’s own experiences and beliefs, creating a more personal, meaningful, and memorable discussion of the art. In this case, it is possible to apply the questions to both the photographs and to the original locations of the photographs themselves. While photographing, and later, while editing, Anne Whiston Spirn likely asks herself similar questions: What is significant to me about this landscape? Why is it significant? What story does it tell; what mood does it evoke? What story do I want it to tell, and how can I frame it differently in order to convey that? What have I learned about the landscape itself, the movement of the wind in the tree branches? Can my scientific knowledge explain the hows and whys of what I have observed today?

Consider these additional questions as you and/or your family spend time sitting quietly in nature, observing – or on your visit to the exhibition:

  • Since photographs capture only a single fraction of a second in time, how accurate are they?
  • How might your/the viewer’s perception of this landscape be changed if, for example, the weather was clear on the day she took the photograph?
  • How do photographs shape our perception of landscapes?
  • Is a photograph more or less truthful than a painting?
  • Is the visual information we find in photographs (or any art) reliable? Do we have to acquaint ourselves with the experiences and biases of the artist in order to fully understand the meaning of the work, or is it enough to draw our own conclusions based on our own experiences and biases?
  • How might Anne Whiston Spirn’s photographs be useful to those studying history, ecology, or anthropology?

Anne Whiston Spirn’s new book, The Eye is a Door: Landscape, Photography, and the Art of Discovery, features many of the photographs included in the exhibition, and describes her multi-disciplinary approach to visual literacy and learning. A full list of publications is available on her website:

Related Programming at Smith College:

  • On Monday, February 10, Anne Whiston Spirn will offer a free, public lecture during the Landscape Studies class meeting in the Weinstein Auditorium from 2:40-4pm.
  • On Tuesday, February 11, “Threshold,” an evening of dance and music, plus a Q&A session with Spirn, will take place at the Mendenhall Center for the Performing Arts’ Theatre 14. Members are encouraged to reserve seating in advance.
  • On Friday, February 14, admission to the museum will be free to all between 4pm and 8pm during the February Second Friday event and reception.
  • On Wednesday, February 26, Taiga Ermansons will lead an Open Eyes discussion for museum members at 2pm. Advance reservations are recommended.
  • On Saturday, March 1, from 10am – 3pm, the museum’s annual Family Day event will take place, consisting of a range of exhibition-related craft projects, snacks, and other activities. No reservations required!

The Smith College Museum of Art is open Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10am – 4pm and Sundays noon – 4pm. Elm Street at Bedford Terrace. Northampton, MA. 413-585-2760.

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