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News & Insight

MoMA Will School You On Photographic Literacy – For Free

By Kishore Sawh on February 15th 2016

In the last two minutes, more images were taken than in the entire 20th century, so it’s been speculated (and I’d actually be surprised if it weren’t true). Given the sheer numbers, fair to say there are a lot of images, so the volume of good ones is much larger than 20 years ago, though proportionally, I’m not so sure. What makes a ‘good’ picture? Once you’ve answered that, how do you then get your work there, and maybe bridge that gap between something simply pretty, and something that’s pretty and means something? 

Once you’ve answered that, how do you then get your work to that point, and maybe bridge that gap between something simply pretty, and something that’s pretty and means something? Does an image have to mean anything? 


We could wax philosophical about this for ages, but that seemingly esoteric nature of photography and critique needn’t be so – a little formal education can go a long way. And if it is such education and food-for-thought you seek, the Museum Of Modern Art has something that’s right up your alley.

Sarah Meister, MoMA’s Department of Photography Curator, has trawled MoMA’s archives for material she uses to inspire and educate in her six-session Coursera class – that’s six weeks worth of content, and all for which there is no charge. What is part and parcel for such a program? 

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Well, the weeks are divided and distributed so they can be engaged and consumed at your desired time and speed. The material is presented via short films, video conversations, and audio slideshows. That’s correct – audio slideshows – and this, I feel, is interesting. What this suggests to me, as I have yet to go through the course, is that Meister and MoMA understand that the discussion about the field is truly key to becoming visually literate.

“This course aims to address the gap between seeing and truly understanding photographs by introducing a diversity of ideas, approaches, and technologies that inform their making. In this course you will look closely at photographs from the collection of The Museum of Modern Art and hear a variety of perspectives on what a photograph is and the ways that photography has been used throughout its nearly 180 year history: as a means of artistic expression, as a tool for science and exploration; as an instrument of documentation; to tell stories and record histories; and as a mode of communication and critique in our ever increasingly visual culture.”



Right from the start, the syllabus proves to have a focus on reframing thought, over reframing the viewfinder. From seeing through photographs to the subjectivity of perspective, to narratives, histories, and contemporary culture, this is an exercise for your mind that should not only help you understand photography’s culture, but how to be a better, more significant, more meaningful member of it.

You can find the course here.

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A photographer and writer based in Miami, he can often be found at dog parks, and airports in London and Toronto. He is also a tremendous fan of flossing and the happiest guy around when the company’s good.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Marc Neal

    very good course so far, challenging and not trite, which is much more than can be said for many online courses

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  2. Drake Bergens

    I just started the course I’m using the app and it’s been really fluid with an easy to use interface. The first few videos have been A+. Always a positive experience to listen to people speak about photography that have been around long enough to watch it evolve through many decades.

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