I suspect that for people fluent in visual media, whose vernacular is fully, or maybe even partway formed, “Visual Culture” by Howells and Negreiros is but a primer. For this reader though it was akin to a walking down a long corridor where one senses that some person – the narration – conveniently switches the fluorescent lights on at each chapters breakpoint, that the strips of illumination seem to flicker with life as I walk through the corridor; as if accompanying this pedestrians pace and providing the clarity into the subjects under review.
This second edition has been updated reflecting both the developments in media and the changing events in world history since it was first published. Set in two parts: Theory and Media it covers in a very straightforward way, I suppose, many of the key bases in the study of (Western) visual culture. The theory section covers Iconology, Form, Art History, Ideology, Semiotics and Hermeneutics all with eminently readable text, referencing images to anchor the debates being discussed in a very readable format. I particularly enjoyed the excursion from Iconology to Ideology where I felt I was led to appreciate not only John Berger’s central theories of the politics of art but, perhaps more topically, the way in which women are presented in art. I was reminded of some thoughts – here
– that I had had in regard to Steiglitz’s “Georgia O’Keefe – Torso, 1918-19” when the book considered Gustave Courbet’s “The Origin of the World” oil on canvass painting of 1866. Both images focus their attention on the female crotch, Steiglitz in monochrome and “burnt-in” to conceal the vulva, whereas Courbet’s is in colour and almost photo realistic where the model’s genitalia is described in no less detail that the rest of her body in view. Courbet’s mimetic portrayal suggest to me that it was painted for private viewing – some researching suggests that Khalil Bey commissioned the picture – for his private collection of erotic imagery; whilst Steiglitz knew that the photographic print was capable of ubiquity, although it is known that Steiglitz made different versions – some for his private use – and he released only the “worked” print. This whole area of feminine portrayal is difficult and I view its presence on the horizon on this course with some trepidation.
Berger’s (now infamous) view on the twin paintings of Hals ‘Regents’ and ‘Regentesses’ is discussed, though without any real resolution – perhaps to be expected and, as I have now picked up “Ways of Seeing” I am diving once more into that treatise by the man himself! The chapter on Semiotics is at least readable and comprehensible on first acquaintance with it, unlike Chandlers ‘Semiotics – the Basics’ which I suspect may take several quixotic attempts before the dawn breaks. What made it so accessible was the way by which the authors approached the subject from more than one direction, textually and visually, by print and by moving image.
The second section deals with various media: fine art, photography, television, film and new media. Whilst theatre is discussed, almost as a sub section within film, and whilst not dismissing it’s strength as a medium I felt it could have a chapter. Notwithstanding that minor criticism I found the Theory section more beneficial than the media section – though like all books that I find interesting and stimulating it will be a reference that I will turn to again and again of that I have no doubt.