Claire Collison / Visual Literacy activities / Westminster Academy

Activity: Becoming Detectives: Where Am I?

Thomas Struth, Gereonswall, Cologne, 1982

Thomas Struth, Gereonswall, Cologne, 1982

This activity by Claire Collison encourages students to apply their powers of observation, alongside their common sense, to demonstrate what they can deduce from images.

Our next gallery visit was to the Barbican, where we looked at two exhibitions: Constructing Worlds, in the main Gallery, as well as Walead Beshty’s cyanotypes in the Curve (please see session 9 notes for how we followed up on Beshty’s work).

Visiting the Barbican to look at an exhibition on architecture was a gift, and we began the session outside, in an internal courtyard surrounded by residential property with a discussion around who might live there – what clues were present in the building itself, as well as in the particular part of the City we were in? This provided a good introduction to looking at the exhibition, and thinking about the various ways architecture – and photographs of architecture – reveal the society, politics, and history of a place.

Activity – Becoming Detectives: Where Am I?

You will need:

Provide students with a range of Thomas Struth’s street photographs* All captions and identifying context needs to be removed, so that the students only have the image to work from.


How to:

Students can work alone, or in small groups. The idea is to focus on one single image from the series, and to elicit as much information as possible from what they see.

Students are then given the following instruction:

You have been abducted by aliens. When you regain consciousness, this is where you find yourself. Look closely at the photograph, and try to work out where you are from the visual clues. Can you also make a guess at what year you find yourself in, and explain why?

*There is a good selection of Struth’s series Unconscious Places in the Barbican catalogue, Constructing Worlds.

Link to online images

Outcomes/ Learning objectives:

The aim is to demonstrate what, by applying their powers of observation, alongside their common sense, the students can deduce. Struth’s series of street views are taken with a camera placed on a tripod in the middle of the street. From city to city, the composition is unchanging: ‘If you change the composition, then you are inviting people to consider the difference in the composition each time. If you have more of a scientific grid, more of a comparative structure, then this enables the visual structure to be understood more clearly’*

By providing rigid parameters, students are left with fewer distractions to the challenge of working out where and when a photograph is taken. Creating a fantasy narrative, such as being abducted, provides the student with a permission to seek out evidence and add in conjecture. Once comfortable with ‘reading’ a streetscape, they will be more inclined to ask themselves why the photographer produced such a series, and whether it works for them.

*from Constructing Worlds at Barbican


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