“Sight Reading” Explores the Silent Language of the Photograph

Artwork: Jonathan Lewis (British, born 1970), Abbey Road From The Pixles, 2003, Inkjet print. George Eastman Museum , by exchange with the artist. © Johnathan Lewis and Benrubi Gallery, NYC.

In 1936, Hungarian artist László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) observed, “The illiterate of the future will be the person ignorant of the use of the camera as well as the pen.” Eighty years later, his words resonate all the more as the ubiquity of the photograph has become a global phenomenon. It’s ability to crystallize a fraction of a second and preserve it independent of context creates a visual language all its own. As the word photography itself confirms, this is a means of writing with light. With the ability to both show and tell without ever speaking a word, photographs can reach all people in the sighted world.

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And it is in this way that Moholy-Nagy’s words resonate: what it visual literacy, and how does it operate? A new exhibition Sight Reading: Photography and the Legible World, on view at the Morgan Library & Museum, New York, through May 30, 2016, explores the a tool of communication in its many forms. Produced in collaboration with the George Eastman Museum, the show features more than eighty works from the 1840s to the present, presenting various narratives, arguments, and ideas produced in a wide array of materials, including pioneering x-rays and aerial views, artifacts of early photojournalism, and recent examples of conceptual art.

Timothy H. O'Sullivan (American, born Ireland, 1840–1882), Historic Spanish Record of the Conquest, South Side of Inscription Rock, 1873 from the album Geographical Explorations and Surveys West of the 100th Meridian, Albumen silver print. George Eastman Museum, purchase.

Timothy H. O’Sullivan (American, born Ireland, 1840–1882), Historic Spanish Record of the Conquest, South Side of Inscription Rock, 1873 from the album Geographical Explorations and Surveys West of the 100th Meridian, Albumen silver print. George Eastman Museum, purchase.

Photography, like language, is a living thing. It evolves as it informs and inspires people to develop its syntax, expand its vocabulary, and produce countless possibilities. The exhibition is organized into nine sections, exploring the many layered aspects of visual literacy including: The Camera Takes Stock (creating inventory), Crafting a Message (creating narrative), Photographs in Sequence (dissecting movement), The Legible Object (documenting written work), The Photograph Decodes Nature (viewing the microscopic world), The Photograph Decodes Culture (recreating visual history), Meaning is on the Surface (altering the image to a new result), Photography on the Page (photography in the media), and Empire of Signs (street signage in urban life).

Sight Reading is a dense, layered study of the language of the photograph, featuring works by William Henry Fox Talbot, William N. Jennings, Eugène Atget, László Moholy-Nagy, John Baldessari, and Aaron Siskind, among others. Spanning some 175 years, the exhibition traces the growth of photography as a pictorial language, one which can be taken for things as diverse as evidence in courts, propaganda in the media, and investments at the auction houses.

László Moholy-Nagy (American, b. Hungary 1895–1946), Massenpsychose (Mass Psychosis), 1927. Collage, pencil and ink. George Eastman Museum, purchase with funds provided by Eastman Kodak Company. Courtesy of George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and Film. © 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

László Moholy-Nagy (American, b. Hungary 1895–1946), Massenpsychose (Mass Psychosis), 1927. Collage, pencil and ink. George Eastman Museum, purchase with funds provided by Eastman Kodak Company. Courtesy of George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and Film. © 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

As Moholy-Nady observed, “The photograph, now they are detached from their original surroundings, they are involved in a close world in which they only relate to each other: all the rest of ‘reality’ has vanished. This allows us to see those elements from a new point of view and perhaps to reach a better understanding.”

Undoubtedly, photography is redefining our understanding of literacy; in the age of Photoshop, filters, and memes, of the Hubble Space Telescope, geo-tagging, instant results, new dialects are being developed right before our very eyes, as the language of photography expands to supply the demand it drives.


Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.