We are Visually Sophisticated and Visually Illiterate


Film blogger, Tony Zhou, recently published a video breakdown of Michael Bay’s signature style, which he hilariously refers to as ”Bayhem.” As a lover of cinema, I watched with rapt attention as Zhou broke down the technical elements that characterize films like Transformers – rotating shots, multiple moving elements, low angles, etc.

He’s not a fan because Bay’s belief that more is more runs counter to his own tastes. Bay doesn’t just rotate the camera around the subject. He has the subject counter rotate while standing up from a crouched position to emphasize movement and epic-ness. Creating an epic shot without reason (other than “because I can”) leaves us with a story devoid of substance and meaning. The piece had me nodding the whole time, but it wasn’t until 7:21 where things really clicked for me.

Zhou opines, “But in the end, I think the popularity of this style is hugely important. Whether we like it or not, the interesting thing here is that we’re really visually sophisticated, and totally visually illiterate. We can process visual information at a speed that wasn’t common before. But thinking through what an image means? Not so much.”

I’ve challenged the concept of visual literacy before. I previously wrote:

As more people become “photographers,” the more they will come to appreciate photography through regular (often daily) consumption. Flipping through Facebook or Instagram immediately reveals “good” and “bad” photos. And as a consumer devours more photography, they will ideally start to discern between “good” and “great” and all the shades in between.

But in light of what Tony wrote and in observing photographic consumption in society, I’m inclined to change my position. “Literacy” doesn’t just happen. It needs to be taught.

Let’s start with a very simple and common parallel in photography: the filter. When I was a kid, I spent a large chunk of my birthday money buying a Cokin filter set which included a graduated sepia filter and a star filter. In those days, I had to screw on a filter holder to the end of my lens, and then select a filter from a box not so dissimilar from the blood slide box that Dexter kept of his victims.


This isn’t to say that my choice of filters was methodical and carefully planned. Back then, if I saw a shiny object, star filter. Landscape scene, graduated sepia. Nowadays, apps like Instagram and VSCO allow us to apply filters to our images with a simple tap. But can we answer the question: why do we use filters? To induce nostalgia? To emulate film to induce nostalgia? To claim that life is beautiful so #nofilter, but we’re actually using filters? To try to force focus to an element within the photo because we didn’t have the patience or the skill to shoot it right?

We are visually sophisticated. We know how to work our apps to get that perfect combination of saturation, contrast, and brightness. We read MTF charts and discuss chromatic aberration of each new lens. We consume copious amounts of imagery on a daily basis. But do we know why? And are we able to look at a photo and come up with an informed interpretation of why it is or is not successful?

It is easy to be seduced by a glitzy studio shot that has been Photoshopped to death, but can we appreciate the context of a remarkable photojournalistic image? Can we spot a fake? Do we understand how focal length affects scene compression?

Because if we cannot, then we will continue to create and consume drivel. This is the evolution in my thinking. I thought that visual literacy would just happen through consumption. But mass consumption leads to appreciation of the lowest common denominator. Take the enormously successful pop star Ariana Grande’s newest lyric:

Catchy beat with a nice hook produced by famous Swede using all known formulas for success, but devoid of meaning – or at the very least, proper grammar. We aren’t advancing the oeuvre much with this one, folks.

Michael Bay creates blockbusters, but he will never be considered in the same breath as Scorsese, Kubrick, Hitchcock, et al. It takes an inspired auteur to push the art of filmmaking to the next level. Similarly, to get into the post-filter age, we’re going to have to actually develop a point of view for our photography. We’re going to have to have enough theory and history to understand other people’s photos. Not all the time, mind you. Photography is still fun after all. But it will enrich our appreciation and ability to be more visually literate as photographers.

It’s fun to be sophisticated, but it’s dumb to be illiterate.

About the author: Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and Co-founder of PhotoShelter. Allen is a graduate of Yale University, and flosses daily. This article originally appeared here.

  • David Vaughn

    I think one of the first steps to getting more photographers to be visually literate is to get them to understand that they should not be afraid of shadow. So many of them will get into photography and shoot everything in the flat light of the shade because they were taught that the harsh shadows of the sun are basically the devil. And yes, you can get some ugly shadows in certain situations, but if you can learn how to work those shadows to your advantage to tell a story, then that just means you have one more tool than the other photographers who photograph any subject in any context with that flat lighting.

    Then they get strobes and set them up so there are no shadows on the subject. The light is flat, sterile and stagnant. And they’re applauded for it by the people who taught them that you must bring light into every part of a scene. Mystery is bad. Everything must be handed to the viewer.

    Sometimes you want that sit-com “See everything” look. Other times the mysterious and contrasty film noir works best. But if we’re never taught that there are options, then we’re only limiting ourselves and our knowledge then we’re only limiting the scope/impact of our craft.

    Just my honest opinions. Others may have had different experiences.

  • Adam Cross

    “Bayhem” has been used to describe Michael Bay’s movies/style for quite some time, I don’t think it’s of Zhou’s coinage. Just saying

  • Sid Ceaser

    There was a great write-up about Bay by one of his film instructors in the Criterion edition of Armageddon (Criterion of Armageddon – let that sink in). No matter how badly Bay gets trashed, and I include myself in the trashing most of the time, the dude can make beautiful pictures. He knows how shots should be framed. They are pretty gorgeous. Except the Transfomers stuff – I can’t make out what is going on in those – too messy/busy. Bay makes beautiful looking films.

  • Banan Tarr

    Agreed. There’s a reason Hollywood still throws millions of dollars at him and says, “Make me this!!”. I’ve been pretty critical of Bay for a while but the numbers don’t lie and his films are popular, having brought in a box office revenue of over $2 billion. His 1996 film “The Rock” was actually pretty good, too.

  • Leonardo Abreu

    Bay is mediocre as hell

  • Carol Uren

    uptil I saw the
    draft ov $4151 , I accept that my friends brother woz actualey erning money
    part-time on there computar. . there uncles cousin haz done this 4 less than
    twentey months and resantly cleared the morgage on there place and bourt a
    top of the range Peugeot 205 GTi . check here WWW.jObspup.ℂ­OM

  • kassim

    I like even the Transformers. Bad taste huh?

  • TheGloriousEnd

    That was brilliant. A huge kudos to Tony Zhou for putting together such a well though out deconstruction.