Understanding Visual Culture Weekly Readings
Lecture Notes - Week 2, Jan 15 th
January 15–Representation and Image: What is visual culture?
Read: Rampley, “Visual Culture and the Meanings of Culture” from Exploring Visual Culture
READINGS FOR WEEK #2
Rampley, “Visual Culture and the Meanings of Culture”
Concepts of Culture
The idea of culture has complex history, and debates about its meaning have
been linked inextricably with the parallel concept of “civilization” regarded by many as
synonymous with culture, and by others as its antithesis.
The idea of culture arose partly in response to the impact of the Industrial
Revolution in England and partly as a result of Enlightenment speculation on the origins
and meanings of human society.
Although “culture” initially denoted a process : the intellectual and spiritual
cultivaton of an individual or social groups—it can be seen in the nineteenth century in
While the idea of culture is relatively recent, the origins of the world as rather
older, for it comes from the Latin Culture
“Culture” initially denotes a process: the intellectual and spiritual cultivativation
of an individual or social groups, it came to be seen in the nineteenth century in material
Dwight MacDonald argues that mass culture is a debased form of high-culture
imposed from above. Technicians, hired by businessmen, fabricate it; its audiences are
passive consumers, their participation limited to the choice between buying and not
Greenberg coined the term “Kitsch” to distinguish between “bogus” culture and
genuine avant-garde art.
“Kitsch” was meant, he argued, for those who are “insensible to the values of
genuine culture”; offering “vicarious experience and faked sensation.
The role of avant-garde art was to “keep culture moving” and hence maintain
Social status and class are no longer defined eclusively by wealth, but the term
“cultural capital” coined by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu
Social Status and class are no longer defined exclusively by weath, but the term
“cultural capital” coined by French sociologist Pierre Bourdien Understanding Visual Culture Weekly Readings
Lecture Notes - Week 3 , jan 22 nd
January 22 – Typography and Representation
Read: Campbell et al., “Visual Literacy and the Truth behind an Image” (Blackboard)
Hall, “The Spectacle of the ‘Other’” (Representation, Chapter 4, pp. 215-232)
McClintock, Imperial Leather (excerpt) (This is same reading as ReadingAfrom
Representation, Chapter 4, pp. 272-275, assigned on p. 232) (Blackboard)
READINGS FOR WEEK #3
Hall “The spectacle of the other” Representation, Chapter 4
Focus of the chapter is the variety of images which are displayed in popular culture and in the
mass media. Have the repertoires of representation around “difference” and “otherness” changed
or do earlier traces remain intact in contemporary society? Heroes vs. Villain : Myth..etc
Rather tan the “right or wrong” meaning we need to ask which meaning between the many
meanings in this image does the magazine mean to priviladge? What is the preferred meaning?
Apicture/photo may cary several meanings : there is no “true” meaning.
Meaning “floats” it can not be finally fixed. Attempting to “fix” it is the many potential
meanings of an image in attempt to priviledge one.
Activity#2, #3, #4, #5, #6
The image carries many meanings all equally possible. What is important is the fact that the
image shows an event (denotation) and carries a “message” or “meaning” aka (denotation).
Barthes calls this “Meta-Message” or “Myth”. Social context, background and pre understood
conventions anchor meanings (Britain vs. Blacks..etc)
Gender and sexuality to consider/captivate : photos can have meaning when they are
dressed/read in a context, agaisnt’t or in connection with one another. Images do not carry its
own specific meaning. So why is “otherness” so compelling an object of representation?”
Why does differences matter?
1.Linguist perspective: Difference matters because it is essential to meaning; w/o it,
meaning could not exist. (Ex. We know what black is because we can contrast it with its
opposite “white”.. Argues Sausurres). Meaning is relational, it is the “difference”
between white and black, which signifies which carries meaning. Though binary
oppositions have great value of capturing the diversity of the world, they are also rather
a crude and reductionist way of establishing meaning (ex. Black/White photography
not truly black/white but rather patches of grey) 2.From theories of language: We need “differences” because we can only construct
meaning through a dialogue with the “other”. Meaning does not belong to one speaker;
it arises in the give-and-take between different speakers. The world in a language is half
someone else’s. It becomes “one’s own” only when the speaker appropriates the word,
adopting it to his own semantic expression intention.
3.Anthropology: Culture depends on giving things meaning by assigning them to different
positions w/in a classificatory system. Binary opposition is crucial for all classifications,
because one must establish a clear difference between things in order to classify them.
Mary Douglas argues that what really disturbs cultural order is when things turn up in
the wrong category: or when things fail to fit any category such as substance like
4.Psychoanalytic: Relates to the role of “differences” in our psychic life. “Other” is
fundamental to the constitution of the self to us as subjects, and to sexuality identity.
Radicalizing the “other”
Holding these theoretical “tools” of analysis in reserve for a moment, let us now explore more
Examples oth“others” – there are 3 major components.
1. 60 centuries contact between Europeans traders and the West African kingdom: source
of slavery for there centuries
2. Europeans colonization’s of Africa and the “scramble” between the European powers for
the control of colonial territory, markets and raw materials in the period of “High
3. Post Second War Migrations from the “third” worlds into Europe and northAmerica.
READINGS FOR WEEK #3
Campbell et Al – Visual Literacy and the Truth behind an Image
Composition: The Visual’s Aesthetic Power
• Composition is the creative activity of placing objects within a frame. When painting a
picture, we’re choosing where to place shapes and dots and lines on a two-dimensional
• Composition is all about directing viewers to notice certain elements within a drama,
purposefully communicating out ideas through visual language.
• Herbert Zettl points out, understanding the aesthetics of composition does not necessarily
mean knowing how to create a beautiful image; it means knowing how to structure both
still and moving screen images for “maximally effective communication”
• The best photographs and graphic designs do that: they dictate a reader’s comprehension:
Michael Rabiger discusses good composition this way
Color: Color choices have great impact on an image. We consciously and unconsciously respond
to color every day, and we are constantly making aesthetic choices related to color.
• The power of color was also evident during “tilipmaania” in seventeenth-century
Holland. The Dutch were so taken by the vivid colors of tulips in the gray Dutch
landscape that they became intoxicated; a frenzy of financial speculation followed and a
single tulip bulb could cost a thousand Dutch floorings • The fact is, humans are physically programmed to respond to color, and we respond to
certain colors in particular ways: Red and Orange light when light pass through our retina
more easily, making these colors the most noticeable. Look Here.
• Advertisers are also keenly aware of red’s power: The color will lead a viewer to a
particular corner of the page, clarifying a message or saying “this is important”
• Form has to do with the object inside the frame, how big it is, and where it is placed. The
simplest form is a dot, and placing a dot within a four walls of a frame commands
attention: We look at the dot before we look at any blank space within a frame.
• Frame Magnetism: When a dot is close to one side of a frame, that side seems to pull the
dot toward it. Notice the diagram below.
• Headroom: Framing an image so an individual has a bit of space over her head to
convey that she is not cramped by the frame or pulled upward by frame magnetism.
• Headboards: creates the illusion that the figure is in a larger setting rather than a box.
• The rule of thirds: a well-known principle of photographs and image composition. By
breaking an image down in thirds (both horizontally and vertically), and by placing
elements on the points of intersection, we can avoid both the uncomfortable pulling when
the form is too close to the frame and the boring inertia when the form is too central.
• Shape: Is tied to form. The most basic shapes—square, circle, and triangle—are often
connected to the three basic (primary) colors, red, blue, and yellow.
• Triangles are stimulating because they point leading, one’s eyes to various areas within
the frame, adding tension with diagonal lines and energy to the entire composition.
• Aline embodies a narrative significance of its own. Horizontal lines evoke calm and
stability; vertical lines convey energy and upward thrust. Diagonal lines, like triangles,
are dynamic, exciting, somewhat unstable, and for these reasons are advantageous,
toward visually communicating complicated ideas.
• It’s an important strength, when creating an image, to be aware of how lines divide a
• The angle from which the image is taken offers more invisible lines and mother means
for communicating depth—the more extreme the angle, the more intense the feeling of
• The invisible lines that angles create are also infused with meaning.
• Western cultures tend to read lines (and other images) the same way we read this text, left
to right. This has compositional implications, giving lines additional energy that we read
into them: we automatically assign movement to lines
• Because of our Western left-to-right orientation, our eyes tend to res or linger on the right
side of the frame, so whatever appears on the right side seems to dominate the image.
Semiotics and symbolic meaning: • Asign is simply something that conveys meaning beyond the object itself. Flowers are
sign of spring, dark clouds are sign that it might rain; yawning is a sign indicating fatigue
or boredom. We know these things because we are familiar with weather and human
• Other signs are not quite obvious, requiring, more knowledge of cultural norms to
understand their meaning.
• Similarly, different cultures read gestures, like publicly spitting or picking one’s nose, in
different ways. These actions are perfectly acceptable in many countries.
Semiotics: The study of signs, was developed in the early twentieth century by Ferdinand de
Saussure and Charles Sanders Peirce; both studies signs by breaking them down into their
fundamental parts—the words, image, gesture or sensory cue “signifiers” and the concept
“signified” and asked important questions about how something comes to stand for
something else, and how a sign is connected to the object to which it refers.
The relationship between language and meaning is arbitrary and learned and this is what
interested both Saussure and Peirce. Visual communication scholar Sandra Moriarty notes
that Peirce’s work has become particularly helpful in how a sign “stands for” it’s object.
Pierce formulated three different types of representation “iconic” “indexical” and “symbolic”
which range from the most easily interpreted signs “iconic” to the most complex
Iconic Signs are the most basic sign types because they closely resemble the thing they
represent: a photograph or film, or pictogram like those shown below.
Index (or Indexical): signs are less straightforward but still logical representations of an object.A
deer hoof print in the word is a sign that a deer passed by…etc.
When reading index signs in media images, we also borrow from our own lived experience to
determine how the signs contribute to the overall narrative.
Symbolic Signs: are the most complex of all signs because they are determined by culture and
therefore in need of a higher level of interpretation.
Symbolic signs include other cultural indicators: socially defined gestures, collective practices,
styles of dress, national emblements, and cultural innuendo—all the things that are
learned through one’s upbringing education, and interactions with specific social groups.
Symbolic signs can be so charged with meaning, however, that they can easily be misinterpreted.
Like any other text message, visuals can thus be complicated fraught with controversy.
Thy can be extremely evocative, but also extremely vague. Therefore, context is always a
critical part of the story and meaning behind any visual message.
Realism: Truth and photography
One of the most controversial aspects of visual imagery is the relative truthfulness of images and
the ease with which images can be manipulated—the question of weather visuals can be
trusted. Photographs are mere mirrors of the real scene at hand.
Image Misrepresentation and Manipulation
Photographers, in fact, have been intentionally misrepresentating reality since the earliest
days of photography.
Even if photographs are mere representation at least they do offer some sort of proof that
the people or objects photographed were there. READINGS FOR WEEK #3
Imperial Leather : race, gender and sexuality in the colonial contest,Anne McLintock
In 1899, the year that AngloBoer War broke out in South Africa, an advertisement for
Pears’ Soap in Mclure’s Magazine [Fig 1.2] announced [quote on reading]
The first point about Pears’ advertisement is that it figures imperialism as coming into
being through domesticity.
Soap and Commodity Spectacle:
Before 1851, advertising scarcely existed. As a commercial form, it was generally
regarded as a confession of weakness, a rather shabby last resort.
Most advertising was limited to small newspaper advertisement, cheap handbills and
After midcentury, however, soap manufacturers began to pioneer the use of pictorial
advertising as a central part of business policy
In 1884, the year of the Berlin Conference, the first wrapped soap was sold under a brand
name. This mall event signified a major transformation in capitalism, as imperial
competition gave rise to the creation of monopolies.
Nonetheless, the Victorian obsession with cotton and cleaniness was not simply a
mechanical reflex of economic surplus.
If imperialism garnered a bounty of cheap cotton and soap oils from coerced colonial
labor, the middle class Victorian fascination with clean, white bodies and clean, white
clothing stemmed not only from the rampant profiteering of the imperial economy but
also from the realms of rituals and fetish Understanding Visual Culture Weekly Readings
Lecture Notes - Week 4, Jan 29
Week 4 – Jan 29
Read: Berger, Ways of Seeing, Chapter 1
Hall, “The Spectacle of the ‘Other’” (Representation, Chapter 4, pp. 232-246)
Activity 4 (Still Life), Representation, pp. 14-15, including reading on pp. 48-49
Activity 9 (Foucault on Las Meninas), pp. 40-44
READINGS FOR WEEK #4
Ways of seeing by John Berger, Chapter 1
The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. We only see what we look
at. To look is an act of choice.As a result of this act, what we see is brought within our reach
though not necessarily within arm’s reach. We never look at just one thing; we are always
looking at the relation between things and ourselves.
An image is a sight, which has been recreated or reproduced. It is an appearance, or a