We in America like to think of ourselves as visually literate. We like to think that we're wise to the ubiquity of advertising in our environment, that we can spot a doctored photograph in a magazine, that we can "read" and interpret the hundreds (or thousands) of images that we see every day. I've spent the past 25 years as an artist, making images for commercial clients, and I'm not so sure we're as literate as we think we are.
For starters, we spend only a few seconds viewing most of the images we see in the course of a day. (We commercial artists have a joke that the thing we're working on, whatever it is, will be lining the bottom of someone's bird cage in a day or two.) You can't "read" an image in a few seconds any more than you can read a page of text in a few seconds. To read and interpret an image, one needs to observe the composition, the colors, the focal points, the lighting. One needs to consider context, historical setting, the medium used to make the image, and style. And then it's important to examine one's own emotional and intellectual response to help make the meaning. All of this takes time and attention and intention.
I've been conducting a small experiment among my friends and family, asking them to draw the back of a dollar bill from memory. None of my respondents, myself included, could do it. Yet this is a visual object that passes through our hands almost every day.
One thing everyone knows, though, is that George Washington is on the front of the bill. So even though I had intended to only use imagery from the back of the $1 bill, I've decided to give George some love. I've been slowly carving a giant 24" x 36" blow-up of his face. Its feeling kind of intimate, being so up close to this very well-known image of Washington, which is an engraving based on a painting made in 1796 by Gilbert Stuart.
Here are some photos of my progress:
George Washington had curly hair.
George Washington had blue eyes.