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Visiting Special Collections

Special Collections at the Albin O. Kuhn Library & Gallery

Visual literacy introduction

Visual Literacy Defined

Visual literacy is a set of abilities that enables an individual to effectively find, interpret, evaluate, use, and create images and visual media. Visual literacy skills equip a learner to understand and analyze the contextual, cultural, ethical, aesthetic, intellectual, and technical components involved in the production and use of visual materials. A visually literate individual is both a critical consumer of visual media and a competent contributor to a body of shared knowledge and culture.

"Visual Literacy Defined," from the ACRL Visual Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education.


Visual literacy in practice

This module will give you the opportunity to practice the third standard from the ACRL Visual Literacy Guidelines:

"The visually literate student interprets and analyzes the meanings of images and visual media."

What does this skill actually look like in practice in your classroom, in your own research, or in your creative practice?

  • Take time to look at the image. Examine the construction, the layout, the materials used.
  • What are the visual features of the image? Examine the color, exposure, lines, and movement of the image.
  • What is your personal interpretation of the image? What do you think it is about? Is there a message or theme portrayed?

What questions do you have about the image or the creator? Continue your research by finding other resources about the image. The creator's own words or other scholarly interpretations can provide additional context about the creation, intention, and interpretation of the image. You can use this additional information to build on your own interpretation.

Visual literacy exercise

To complete these exercise, please select one of the photographer sets below. Each set includes a link to a photograph and a related text; please note that some resources may require that you log in with your UMBC campus affiliation.

  1. Use the worksheet linked below to complete the exercise; PDF and Google Form versions are available.
  2. Open the link to the photograph first. Complete the first page of the worksheet.
  3. Open the link to the text and review the pages assigned. Work through the remainder of the worksheet using both the photograph and the text.
  4. If you're using the PDF version of the worksheet, save the file and send to your professor.

Berenice Abbott


Photograph: Berenice Abbott. Fourth Avenue, Brooklyn, 1936. Available to view in the UMBC Special Collections, call number P75-07-006. Available online at

Text, read paragraphs 1-8: D’AMBROSIO, BRIAN. 2018. “AN INDEPENDENT VISION: The Life of Berenice Abbott.” History Magazine 19 (5): 14–16.,url,uid&db=khh&AN=129937660&site=eds-live&scope=site.

Elinor B. Cahn

Photograph: "Wading Pool in Front of Home on Duncan Street," Elinor B. Cahn (1979). Available to view in UMBC Special Collections, call number P82-11-002. Available online at

Text: Foreword, Preface, and Introduction from Neighborhood: A State of Mind by Linda G. Rich, Joan Clark Netherwood, Elinor B. Cahn. PDF linked below.

Mildred Grossman


Photograph: Grossman, Mildred. "[Little Rock Nine students and Mayor Robert F. Wagner, New York, NY, 1958]," 1958. Gelatin silver print. Available to view in UMBC Special Collections, call number P89-25-129. Available to view online at http://[Little Rock Nine students and Mayor Robert F. Wagner, New York, NY, 1958]

Text, first two sections: Little Rock Nine online exhibit, New York Hotel and Motel Trades Council, AFL-CIO. Available online at

Judy Dater

Photograph: "Ms. Cling-Free," Judy Dater (1982/83). Available to view in UMBC Special Collections, call number P88-05-003. Available online at (may need to log-in using UMBC username).

Text, page 5 beginning with, "A recurring theme..." : Stein, Donna. "The Art of Judy Dater and Her Photographic "Memoir"." Woman's Art Journal 35, no. 1 (2014): 3-13. Accessed April 1, 2020.

Robert Frank

Photograph: Frank, Robert (American, born Switzerland, 1924-). 1955. Trolley, New Orleans from the series The Americans. Available to view in UMBC Special Collections, call number P78-25-018. Available online at

Text, page 30 to end: Cotkin, George. "The Photographer in the Beat-hipster Idiom: Robert Frank's the Americans." American Studies 26, no. 1 (1985): 19-33. Accessed March 26, 2020. Available online at

Lewis Hine


Photograph: Hine, Lewis. "Johnnie Yellow, a young Polish berry picker..." 1909. Available to view in UMBC Special Collections, call number P834. Available online at

Text: "Child Labor in the American South: Maryland Berry Pickers," by Eileen Jeanneret for UMBC HIST 402, Fall 2007. Available online at

127th United States Colored Troops


Photograph: 127th Regiment United States Colored Troops flag, circa 1860s. Carte-de-visit. Available to view in UMBC Special Collections, call number P76-14-005, Rooks Collections. Available online at

Text: "Atlanta History Center acquires rare Civil War African American troop flag," June 14, 2019

Catherine Opie

Photograph: Catherine Opie, American, born 1961. 1998, printed 2000. Tammy Rae & Kaia, Durham, North Carolina. photographs. Place: Saint Louis Art Museum, Gift of the Peter Norton Family Foundation. Available online at

Text, read "The Family" section: Guralnik, Orna. 2013. “Being and Having an Identity: Catherine Opie.” Studies in Gender & Sexuality 14 (3): 239–44. Available online at,url,uid&db=sih&AN=90147587&site=eds-live&scope=site

Cindy Sherman

Photograph: Cindy Sherman (American, born 1954). 1990. Untitled #228. Place: The Museum of Modern Art, Acquired through the generosity of Eileen and Peter Norton. Available online at

Text: Cindy Sherman, Untitled #228 from the History Portraits series, by Christine Zappella.