Visual Culture – Howells and Negreiros

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.

7 thoughts on “Visual Culture – Howells and Negreiros

  1. I suppose the next step on from Steiglitz and Courbet is the ‘infamous’ photographic portrait by Panayiotis Lamprou. Meant to be intimate/personal but strangely enough ended up in the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize in 2010. There was considerable discussion on the OCA forums.
    That apart, it’s obvious that I’m falling well behind on the book reading stakes so will have to begin to tackle the pile.

  2. Catherine, I hadn’t connected that photograph with these other images and it is an interesting suggestion. I’ve just looked again and I think the difference I see is that Lamprou offers twin perspectives – obviously the genitalia for one, but it is also of ‘her’. The photographer presents a woman who is willing (it would appear) to pose as such but also to engage with the viewer through the direct connection between her eyes and the lens. The challenge to the viewer is multifarious – I (John Umney) am a male, you (Catherine) are female – we are both of a certain age they bring perspectives that, for me, are complex both in what they denote and connate. Steiglitz and the Courbet images though are different; first of all it presents the subject as an object – both images, I assume, were used for personal pleasure – the fact that we know who these models are, but are not introduced to them, as Lamprou offers us a chance, these ‘objects’ then could be any (caucasian) sexually mature, post pubescent female, and therefore I suggest, our objectification is amplified because of it. Secondly, these two images are not contextualised other than by being prone. They are there to receive, submissive and available. The Lamprou’s shot, whilst still shocking at least provides a context – it is homely (maybe on holiday) there are objects of domesticity, a bowl that has been used for food – suggesting nourishment provided by the subject, another reference to Madonna which leads directly to the vagina – motherhood (which has been depilated in order to counter the mysticism that Stieglitz portrayed (perhaps he was afraid of O’Keefe – there is evidence that he was jealous of her and Paul Strand’s wife Becky(?))).
    Thanks for bringing that into the conversation and a subject that is coming soon in this Module.

  3. What would be interesting would be to find a similar type of image created by a woman with another woman as subject. Or indeed by a woman of a man or a man of a man. Liz Wells writes briefly on ‘what happens when women look’ in ‘Photography : A Critical Introduction’ (pp293).

    • Ohh groan, another reference to follow up! 🙂 Thanks for this Catherine – what were you saying about getting some reading done – ahead of me I think!

      This whole area is a minefield – not just the PC issues, but representation, objectification, sexism – this seems to be dealt with – or should I say raised, in section two. My head is starting to spin.

      • Ha ha!! I’m just sitting and reading both your thoughts and contemplating finding a huge rock to hide behind!! Really interesting stuff you are discussing, but so ahead of where I am, that I start to panic [and reach for the dictionary]. I fear that years of not studying have turned my brain to mush!

  4. Pingback: Berger day | John Umney – Gesture and Meaning

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