Early Photography Lessons Given by The Simpsons

The Simpsons
Allstar Picture Library Ltd. / Alamy Stock Photo

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Within the realm of cultural studies, using pop-culture artefacts as a reliable source of knowledge isn’t something new. And after getting inspired by Foucault’s archaeological approach towards history, we decided to take a look at “The Simpsons” first season episodes with a different gaze. The main goal behind this lucid and playful task, to share with you some photographic lessons embedded in them.

From here on, every section corresponds to one episode. Within these, you’ll find a brief synopsis followed by all the photography-related insights and lessons we were able to recover while analyzing them. Oh, and just a heads up, we couldn’t find photography lessons in episode 06, but feel free to share with us any else if you find them as well.

Episode 01: Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire

During Christmas shopping, Bart sneaks out in the mall and gets a tattoo. After finding out, Marge uses the whole family holidays’ fund to remove the unfinished and tacky design from his arm. In the meantime, Homer notices that he’s not receiving the yearly bonus from Mr Burns and secretly gets a job as part of Santa’s department.

Not directly related but still interesting for those curious about “optics” in the broad sense beyond lenses and such. You know, optics as the branch of physics specialised in studying light’s behaviour and properties. Bart gets taken to a dermatology clinic where the medic uses magnifying glasses to get a better close-up at the fresh tattoo, and then he uses a laser beam to erase it in the most painful way. Lasers are a huge thing from pop-culture, and is a fascinating topic we should one day discuss more intensely.

Now, into the photography lesson, Homer is pushed to work extra-hours as Santa in a local mall. We can define this as a highly precarious job, and it is. He gets to spend all day with kids, and gets $13.00 after six hours of tiring work. Through Homer’s experience, we can get a slight grasp of how the system messes up with people undergoing financial straits.

Within this context, Homer is just a prop, a very important one, but a prop in the end. And the purpose, to be the fundamental ingredient of this collectible visual souvenirs softly-imposed by American culture. Along with postcards, family pictures, and posing with dressed-up strangers, these visual artefacts are extremely cheap to produce and consequently highly profitable as well.

Episode 02: Bart the Genius

Bart struggles with a psychometric intelligence test and secretly swaps his version with Martin Prince (better known for being the smartest kid in the class). After the results are graded, school psychiatrist Dr Pryor concludes that Bart is a genius and suggests transferring him to a special learning centre for gifted children.

The illusion of his intelligence quickly fades away after some scrutiny (and eventual bullying) by his peers. And for those like us interested in the social sciences, here’s a quick note to consider from now on. When it comes to social behaviour and culture, descriptive and inferential statistics might whisper us the right way; but in the end, society will have the last word about those certain things.

Back to photography, during the psychometric test, we can see how black and white visual resources can efficiently evoke timelessness, longing for the past and triggering imagination. This lesson is given to us after Bart tries to resolve an arithmetic problem and dives into his imagination to picture the scene. Monochromatic imagery is presented to us as a useful resource for focusing on the embedded and coded messages from a photograph or a motion picture. Here, even a slight concentration is achieved after accessing a somewhat desaturated environment.

With a presumably high intellectual quotient of 216, Dr Pryor seems overwhelmed with his “finding”. He became so obsessed that he even placed a portrait of Bart right to one of Einstein. Here, from altars to offices, we can see something peculiar about how we humans tend to decorate our intimate environments. The psychiatrist has lots of books, meaning he wants to give us the idealised impression he is an intellectual man. He also finds that portraits have a particular soul that delights us with the feasible presence of those absent in our lives.

Bart tries to pull one last trick and asks to go back to his regular habitat, the Springfield Elementary School by arguing he will blend with the local culture to investigate their everyday lives. Just like an anthropologist (or a documentary photographer) would research social phenomena by using the fascinating method of cultural ethnography. After that, Dr Pryor asks him to write a project proposal, and Bart ends up confessing his trickery; making his “being-a-genius” nightmare conclude.

Episode 03: Homer’s Odyssey

Bart’s class visits the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, or the place where Homer works. Excited to be seen at work, he accidentally crashes his security cart with a dangerously-looking radioactive pipe. After the incident, Homer gets fired from his job as technical supervisor at the Nuclear Power Plant. Unable to provide for his family, he decides to take his life, and at the realm of the act, he discovers a new life path as a campaigner for safety.

After that, Homer becomes obsessed with safety, and eventually becomes a news sensation across the whole Springfield town. Here, the photographic lesson is brief but still interesting to us. The story transmits the importance of photography to tell news stories, even when coming from a small and free newspaper. Photography has accompanied written text for more than a century, and unless you are reading an average scientific paper, it is hard to imagine knowledge being transmitted nowadays without the aid of visual elements such as photographs or illustrations as well.

Episode 04: There’s No Disgrace Like Home

The plot thickens after Marge, Bart and Lisa embarrass Homer during a picnic celebrated at Mr Burns’ mansion. After feeling the social pressure of “perfect families” around him, he decides to take action and takes his family to Dr Marvin Monroe, an unorthodox counsellor who tries shock therapy to “cure” them. Monroe’s method fails to cure the family, and presumably he would argue that they were just an outlier with no statistical meaningfulness.


A bit off from photography, but still important within the visual sociocultural interests of ours, The Simpsons were victims of how society gets shaped (in one way or another) from consuming mass media content. The “perfect family” symbol is used here as one of the many goals imposed by the superstructure configuring particular aspects of our everyday lives. Something that in principle isn’t that bad, until we consider the anguish individuals can develop simply by not achieving those goals.

The episode is filled with a beautiful met-cultural discourse, and drives us to be more critical towards the subtle requests society impose on us; even before day one of our lives. And if this idea triggers your curiosity, then you should take a look at this important book written by Guy Debord. Here, he examined visual images that shape our everyday surroundings, and even aids to energize the anthropological need of representing ourselves to the others out there.

Episode 05: Bart the General

This one is filled with some nice photography related references. It all begins with Bart arguing with Nelson Muntz (aka school’s bully) which quickly escalated into everyday systematic abuses on him after school. After finding out about the situation, Homer suggests Bart take back at Nelson and everything turns even worse. Desperate for help, Bart visits his grandfather for some advice, and the photographic lessons start to appear.

First, we see how Abe’s room is scatterly-filled with photos of his grand-kids. And we started wondering why humans tend to give photos as presents or gifts? Commonly, people like Homer and Marge (with older parents and children) give away photos of their children as presents to their parents. Even further, we humans tend to give photos of ourselves as gifts to meaningful persons in our lives. And if you think about it for a bit, we haven’t stopped sharing photos of ourselves with society. We are constantly making our visual representations, and even portions of our lives, available for others beyond ourselves. Fascinating visual creatures humans are, and this is just one of many examples of how obsessed with images we’ve become.

Back to The Simpsons, Abraham routes Bart into the militarism way and all the kids manage to finally take Nelson down. Upon victory, a kid grabs Lisa and gives her a strong kiss (presumably against her will). The moment gets immortalized in camera and serves as an exquisite homage to Alfred Eisenstaedt “V-J Day in Times Square” photograph from 1945. There has been a lot of debate around this shot, and we are not going to discuss it further; but we are aware of the fuzz this act might cause nowadays. Although, it seems adequate to quote Eisenstaedt’s experience from the shot (taken from this book):

I saw a sailor running along the street grabbing any and every girl in sight. Whether she was a grandmother, stout, thin, old, didn’t make a difference. I was running ahead of him with my Leica looking back over my shoulder but none of the pictures that were possible pleased me. Then suddenly, in a flash, I saw something white being grabbed. I turned around and clicked the moment the sailor kissed the nurse. If she had been dressed in a dark dress I would never have taken the picture. If the sailor had worn a white uniform, the same. I took exactly four pictures. It was done within a few seconds. Only one is right, on account of the balance. In the others the emphasis is wrong — the sailor on the left side is either too small or too tall. People tell me that when I am in heaven they will remember this picture.

Episode 06: Moaning Lisa

No photographic nor visual culture lessons were found, but still, a nice episode to watch, especially if you like Jazz. Oh, there might be a lesson here about syncopation and photography, but we rather let Ted Forbes guide us through that.

Episode 07: The Call of the Simpsons

Ned Flanders’ new RV triggers envy in Homer, pushing him to buy one of his own. But also, we discover something interesting about Flanders; he lives on the verge of hockness. He is highly in debt because he loves buying nice stuff with credit, and that resolves the mystery of why he’s always filled with the latest and greatest. Something that works as an elegant illustration of how Capitalism skyrocketed in the nineteenth century and eventually became the ruler of our lives. If you find this to be something worth exploring, then take a read at this book written by one of my favourite social scientists of all times, Max Weber. Homer gets seduced by a seller and buys a piece of junk for a very high price.

This last detail brought back some memories of when I bought my first DSLR, and how easy it was for the seller to make me buy some stuff that remained almost unused, like a 55-250mm lens and other pieces of gear I can’t recall right now. But before that moment, I wasn’t using a DSLR camera to take my shots. My workhorse camera was a modest Point & Shoot that allowed me to focus on composition rather than exposure. Why? Because it wasn’t capable of shooting in full manual nor raw. And this is a good way to start learning photography I think.

Back to The Simpsons, Homer takes the family on a camping trip and they quickly get lost. Some unfortunate events happen, and Homer gets all covered in mud. Someone gets him on film, and the whole country goes nuts due to believing he was Big Foot (also known as Sasquatch). Beyond the funny nature of the event, we get introduced to one of the main differences between photography and video. The latter genuinely expands the possibility of capturing everything visually and iteratively, something hard for photography to achieve. And not because of the camera limitations, but ours as operators of the optical tools.

Oh, another interesting idea about science is given to us in this season as well. According to the press conferences of the Primate Research Center, despite reliable results from research instruments, having multiple interpretations of data is an inescapable thing of how we humans build scientific knowledge even today.

Episode 08: The Telltale Head

Bart starts hanging around with a group of troublesome kids, and out of seeking acceptance or trying to impress them, he decides to decapitate a statue of Jebediah Springfield. This character was the founder of the mysteriously-located town, and the statue functions as a symbol for local identity purposes. Here, we are presented with the importance of visual representation, even when it might not be as accurate as we might think.

The importance of the many meanings given to cultural objects whose visual function is their ultimate reason for existing. Photographic or not, everything within the scope of visual culture should be evaluated under that somewhat basic principle. Monuments, statues and portraits, all are cultural representations that aim to materialise some sort of visual nature capable of evoking memories and ideas upon watching them. In short, they exist to inspire.

Episode 09: Life on the Fast Lane

After forgetting Marge’s birthday, Homer rushes to the Springfield mall and impulsively buys a bowling ball for her. Marge is not impressed with the gift and after discovering that Homer bought it for himself, she decides to go bowling to screw him up. Such a decision drives her to meet Jacques, a “bowling instructor” who pursues an affair with her.

Just a brief photography-related lesson is presented to us in this spiced-up episode and it revolves (again) around the act of giving images as gifts. Particularly, Lisa gives Marge a portrait crafted by her with bits of pasta and makes us think about the meaningful nature of moderately-accurate representations within the visually addicted culture we are. Also, we could expand this concept of “giving images as gifts” to the interesting nature of postcards and stamps.

Episode 10: Homer’s Night Out

This is perhaps the most photography-related episode from season 01 of our journey. Bart buys a mini spy camera, and after documenting his everyday surroundings, he eventually takes a troublesome picture of his dad. In the shot, Homer appears having some fun with an exotic dancer at a co-worker’s bachelor party. With the aid of the Photography Club from his school, Bart develops the image and reproduces several copies to share with his friends. In the poetic words of Graciela Iturbide, the image eventually began flying away until it reached Marge’s sight.

So, there are several interesting lessons here.

Right from the beginning, we felt Bart’s enthusiasm after ordering the camera via mail. Plenty of us, photographers or not, have experienced the joyful anxiety of expecting something in the mail. And when it comes to photography related stuff, it is somewhat even more special than anything else. Visual gear rarely gets discounts, and the bundled fragility makes it quite thrilling too. Also, this fits within a particular use of photography which is espionage (we’ll dedicate a special entry just to that topic, there we’ll discuss tiny cameras and even microdots). Such a small camera happens to bring a huge benefit to Bart’s approach to the world via photography, he can have a camera by his side at all times.

Documenting the intimacy of our own families, the social dynamics of our home and even the whole existence of our neighbourhoods is something we tend to forget as we become more photography-serious. But that interesting aim towards the “self” surroundings isn’t something that happens at ease. People sent him to take photos of animals (in accordance to what the stereotyped image they have of what it means to be a photographer). He shoots everything, from dead animals on the street to his own naked body as well. And this tells us something interesting about how photography can help us relate to the world. It is no secret that Bart is somewhat mentally disturbed, and just like the images of Francesca Woodman, his shots resemble that psychological peculiarity.

Also enlightening, we are presented with a curious social fact about photography; it can be a collective thing, and as such, it can be better enjoyed when done as a group thing. Some other brilliant photography lessons are shown at the School’s darkroom, especially when we see the useful nature of knowing other photographers work to, not only appreciate, but to read a photograph properly. Here we are introduced to the idea of seeing photographs in a contemplative way so we can better understand what the photographic medium is capable of.

While seeing the image emerging from the developer tray, the kids compare the tonal range to the one present in Helmut Newton’s work. Someone notes the curious nature of the characters and even compares them to those common in Diane Arbus’ documentary portraits. See, knowing about photography beyond gear is interesting and useful at the same time.

In this episode, we looked back at history and remembered how images were transferred by fax. We also get to see that Mr Burns doesn’t have photographs of himself but paintings instead. And we even get an example of how useful photography can be to find a person as well. Last but not least, I’d like to mention how the images can fly, and how deep an impact produced by them can be. Here, the Simpsons family was almost destroyed by that single image captured by Bart. And we should always consider that having a camera does imply some serious responsibilities too.

Episode 11: The Crepes of Wrath

And speaking of espionage, this episode reflects even deeper on how important photography is for getting closer to certain things; even when it means secrets too.

After blowing up the school toilets with a cherry bomb, Principal Skinner finally gets fed up with Bart’s antics and proposes that Bart be sent to France as part of an exchange program. The family agrees and he is sent to a vineyard. In France, Bart is hosted by a couple of tugs and becomes a national hero when he exposes their plan to spike the wine with antifreeze. Meanwhile, back in Springfield, the Simpsons host an Albanian kid named Adil Hoxha, who is a spy in search of nuclear secrets. Moved by Adil’s interest in his work, Homer gives him all the secrets he’s after by showing him all over the nuclear plant. And how did he manage to spy on those secrets? With a camera!

That was quick, let’s back up a little and see more interesting photography-related stuff embedded in the episode. First, we get to see one of the most interesting optical distortions in our everyday surroundings. When Principal Skinner goes to the Simpsons’ house, he is shown in a funny perspective due to the fish-eye lens in the door. It doesn’t seem like much, but it reminds us of how wide the observable world can become through one of these artefacts. Once invited in and after making his way through the family, he shows some photos of the place where Bart is going to be sent. Just a quick reminder of how important facades are for real estate photographs.

Bart travels with a nice-looking SLR camera which is quickly “confiscated” by the two men hosting him. A precise symbol of how tourists are almost in pursuit of having visual memories of their travels. But not everything in life should be photographed, or at least not under certain circumstances. And that’s what you get to see on the other side of the story when Adil takes images of highly secured areas of Springfield’s Nuclear Plant.

The “innocent-looking kid” takes photographs of the plutonium isolation module inside the power plant and transmits them via a fax-like machine used back in those days. More precisely, this practice was done through wire photo machines that allowed sending pictures by telegraph, telephone or radio. We will explore more about how photographers used them back in the film era, but one thing is certain, transmitting photos through these machines wasn’t a cheap thing to do.

Episode 12: Krusty Gets Busted

While grocery shopping, Homer witnesses a robbery by a man believed to be Krusty the Clown, or Bart’s hero. After being recognised by Homer, the clown is sent to jail and the show is taken over by Sideshow Bob, his assistant. Bart is convinced that Krusty is innocent and tries to prove the system wrong.

Under the penitentiary process, Krusty gets his mug shots. And something is interesting about the highly direct aesthetic of these photographs. A mug shot is a portrait of a person from the shoulders up, typically taken after a person is arrested. The prime goal of the mug shot is to allow law enforcement to have a photographic record of an arrested individual for identification purposes.

Previously, Homer was trying to take some time off the house because his in-laws were at his place showing the family some slides from a recent trip they made to Mexico. Precisely, Patty and Selma had 8 slide carousels with them to show to the family. Imagine they used something like this, then the family got exposed to 1,120 slides during that night. If you find this practice interesting, then you should read this insightful study conducted by Richard Chalfen in 1987 (pretty much around the same time this episode aired live).

After Krusty got out of prison, Bart takes a photograph with his hero, reminding us that this is a huge achievement for some individuals.

Episode 13: Some Enchanted Evening

And for the grand finale, a couple of good examples of how photography can be used for safety purposes. Marge feels taken for granted by Homer and makes a call to a radio station therapist seeking help. Unfortunately (or not) Homer listens to the call and decides to do something about it. Seeking to win her back, he takes her to dine at a fancy restaurant and hires a babysitter to take care of Bart and Lisa, but they soon discover that she is a thief.

Although, the hired babysitter wasn’t the first option. Before that, they called a sitting service that already had some muggish-shots of the kids and said “no-no” to Homer. Therefore, they hired Mrs Botzcowski instead so they can have their romantic night out. After watching a real mug shot of the hired babysitter on the TV, Bart, Lisa and Maggie were capable of dodging the criminal.

Alright Then

This was a fun dive into one of our all-time favourite cultural products, but we know some things might have slipped our minds. Please share your thoughts and findings in our Facebook Group.