One Person’s Perspective

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    History of the International Visual Literacy Association
    By Dennis Pett

    Communicating with visual images is an ancient concept. Since the early cave drawings, people have used visual images to record and express thoughts, feeling, and events in their lives. Technological advances such as photography in the mid-1800s, motion pictures in the early 1900s, and television in the 1950s vastly increased the need to understand the process involved in communicating with visuals.

    The study of visuals has many historical roots, bu the term Visual Literacy is a product of the mid-twentieth century. I first heard it when working with the photographer Henry Holmes Smith, in 1950. He was creating a series of filmstrips that were designed to develop a grammar of photographic images. About the same time, others were engaged in activities that provided a basis for our organization:

    • The books Photography Is a Language and Language of Vision were written by John Whiting and Gyorgy Kepes, respectively;
    • Colin Turbayne wrote The Myth of Metaphor, a book that provided theoretical bases for visual languaging;
    • Rudolf Arnheim wrote Art and Visual Perception, published by the University of California Press;
    • The National Council of Teachers of English published The Motion Picture and the Teaching of English;
    • Audio-visual directors in public schools and colleges were instrumental in expanding the use of films and other visual media at all educational levels;
    • Teaching of filmmaking at high school and college levels was advocated by Tony Hodgkinson, and Sister Bede Sullivan taught such a course as part of an English curriculum.

    There were many other contributions by people representing a wide variety of content areas such as educators of the deaf, English teachers, media specialists, photographers, artists, visual anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, and vision specialists. One of the most important contributions was the work of John Debes and his associates. They developed the newsletter Visuals are a Language that was first published by Eastman Kodak in 1967. This publication was instrumental in developing a dialogue among persons interested in visual communication. This dialogue continued in what was called “a pre-conference meeting” of about a dozen persons in August, 1968. They discussed the possibilities of a conference that would involve persons from a wide variety of educational settings who were concerned with visual communication. The result was a call for a first national conference on visual literacy that was subsequently held in Rochester in March, 1969. My observations at that time were recorded in a report to my director at Indiana University and included the following:

    The first evening session, presented by the National Theater for the Deaf, was one of the most wonderful experiences I can remember.

    It was a varied group – there was an above average percentage of men with beards, an above average percentage of nuns, far more than an average percentage of people who are deaf, and a sprinkling of traditional audio-visual types.

    IVLA presentations have continued to be high quality experiences, and we have remained a varied group with a multitude of interests relating to visual languaging and learning.

    The persons who attended the Rochester meeting had common goals and began to develop like other professional groups. We planned a second conference to be held in Chicago in the spring of 1970 and we began to publish.

    Papers from the first conference were published and a newsletter started in September, 1970 was titled The No Name Newsletter. The first line read “If you received this newsletter in the mail, YOU ARE A MEMBER of the Conference on Visual Literacy.” About the same time, The Center for Visual Literacy was established at the University of Rochester. When the center’s director, Clarence Williams, moved to Gallaudet College in 1975, the center followed him. In October, 1970 a second newsletter titled The Gesture was published and in October, 1971, Vol. 1, No. 1 of the Visual Literacy Newsletter was sent to members and prospective members. It was not until January, 1975 that we changed our name to The International Visual Literacy Association.

    Now we are holding our 20th conference and can be proud of the fact that we have published the following:

    • Eight volumes of the Journal of Visual Verbal Languaging, inaugurated under the leadership of John Debes and Lida Cochran;
    • Eleven books of conference papers;
    • Seventeen volumes of newsletters;
    • A variety of miscellaneous publications.

    In addition, other regional, national, and international conferences have benefitted from the energy and expertise of our members.

    We have accomplished much, but the best is yet to come.

    Dennis W. Pett
    October, 1988

    In October 1971, Volume 1 Number 1 of the Visual Literacy Newsletter was sent to those persons who had participated in any of the first three conferences. It was published for the Conference on Visual Literacy by the Center for Visual Literacy and gathering of content, editing, and paste-up was done here at Indiana University. Now, 18 years later, Volume 18, Number 4 ends our time as editor and co-editor. It seemed, therefore, appropriate to share a bit of the history of IVLA, from our point of view. The preceding pages were written last fall and distributed to the board members who were at the Blacksburg Conference. We thought that the rest of the members might enjoy “One Person’s Perspective” on some of the many factors that have influenced IVLA

    –Jean and Denny Pett