How to Read a Picture

Just as writers use techniques to get their messages across, artists, cartoonists, photographers, and advertisers use images and written text to convey ideas. In fact, images can convey powerful messages that words cannot. Visual artists also use various techniques (such as lighting, subject, angles, colours, focus, proportion, or composition) to get their messages across. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but you need to know how to analyze the picture to gain any understanding of it!

Images are constructed.

Always keep in mind that an image is constructed. A visual artist considers time, place, camera angle, focal point, and various other factors when creating an image in a particular way. Still images are constructed just like paintings, sculptures, and other mediums, and thus have meaning. Images are created for reasons, and artists have messages they want to convey. They use many techniques to get their messages across.

Many clues are given in an image to assist you, the viewer, in determining the artist's message. When you look at an image, look for details that answer the following questions.

  • What dominates this image?
  • Who are the people in this picture? What are they doing?
  • What feelings are conveyed by the subject(s)?
  • Where did this occur?
  • When did it occur?

Then, ask a few more questions.

  • How does the title or any accompanying text relate to the image?
  • What is the artist's explicit, implicit, and/or symbolic message?
  • For the purposes of this course, what does the image have to do with the topic?
  • What (or whose) perspective does the image represent?

Let's look at an example of how to apply these questions, using the image below.

Consider this image, titled "Manufacturing #17".

Now, notice how one student answered the following questions.

  • What dominates the image?

    The large numbers of factory workers.

  • Who are the people in the image, and what they are doing?

    Lots of factory workers, all dressed the same, all doing the same work.

  • What feelings are conveyed by the subject?

    Monotony. Because they are all dressed the same, it's like they are robots, not real people. It also seems a little bit frightening because the people seem so dehumanized.

  • Where did this event occur?

    Without more information, it's impossible to say. It's very industrialized, so it could be in the developed world, but I don't think many factories in the developed world have so much sameness or so many workers.

  • When did the event occur?

    In the modern day as shown by the lighting and industrialized features, plus the use of plastics.

  • The title

    Manufacturing #17 supports the idea of the inhuman aspect of the large factory. It doesn't tell what is being manufactured or where it is. It's just a number.

  • The artist's message

    Industrialization is dehumanizing. The people are all dressed the same. Hoods cover their heads and masks cover their faces, so you can't see any individual features, ethnicity, or whatever. Hundreds of identical people are in this picture, all doing the same work, as far as the eye can see.

  • What does it have to do with globalization?

    Industrialization increases with globalization. The more nations industrialize and the larger the markets they cater to, the more factories like this exist. The more corporations and countries focus on profits, rather than people, the less the concern for individualism.

  • What (or whose) perspective does it represent?

    I would say this image is from an anti-globalization perspective because it shows how individual cultures and identities are sacrificed to make money.

For help with How to Read a Picture, download the viewing chart.