Visual Culture
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Visual Culture

Richard Howells, Joaquim Negreiros

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eBook - ePub

Visual Culture

Richard Howells, Joaquim Negreiros

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About This Book

This is a book about how to read visual images: from fine art to photography, film, television and new media. It explores how meaning is communicated by the wide variety of texts that inhabit our increasingly visual world. But, rather than simply providing set meanings to individual images, Visual Culture teaches readers how to interpret visual texts with their own eyes.

While the first part of the book takes readers through differing theoretical approaches to visual analysis, the second part shifts to a medium-based analysis, connected by an underlying theme about the complex relationship between visual culture and reality. Howells and Negreiros draw together seemingly diverse methodologies, while ultimately arguing for a polysemic approach to visual analysis.

The third edition of this popular book contains over fifty illustrations, for the first time in colour. Included in the revised text is a new section on images of power, fear and seduction, anew segment on video games, as well as fresh material on taste and judgement. This timely edition also offers a glossary and suggestions for further reading.

Written in a clear, lively and engaging style, Visual Culture continues to be an ideal introduction for students taking courses in visual culture and communications in a range of disciplines, including media and cultural studies, sociology, and art and design.

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When we look at a painting, the first – and certainly the easiest – thing we look at is usually its content. We look to see what it’s of or what it shows. It is a very good place to start, and we must never be afraid to begin (as Dylan Thomas put it in Under Milk Wood) at the beginning.
With simple paintings such as John Constable’s famous The Haywain of 1821, we can figure out very quickly what it is supposed to be (see figure 2). We look directly to the evidence of the text itself. It is a view of a landscape; a quiet rural scene on a summer’s day. The sun is shining and the trees are in full leaf. The quality of the light suggests midday or afternoon. There appears to be little in the way of wind, although the clouds suggest a chance of rain. It looks warm: the river is low, and the men in the middle of the picture are wearing shirtsleeves. The central feature of the work is a horse-driven cart, ridden through the river by the two shirtsleeved men. They seem to be fording the water, moving away from us towards the fields in the middle distance, observed by a small dog on the riverbank nearest to where we are standing. To the left of the scene is a small building which fronts on to the river. It is possibly a mill, but there is little sign of activity, apart from a wisp of smoke from the chimney. If we look carefully, we can see a woman outside washing something in the river. The building does not seem to be in the best state of repair. The cart is empty (apart from the men), so we suspect that it is on its way to collect something, possibly hay, from the fields on the far bank, where there are men working in the distance. Another cart is being loaded on the far side of the large field. Certainly, the driver of the central cart appears to be in no particular hurry. He is moving at walking pace, and there is no evidence of splashing around the wheels of the cart. He is seated, not standing. From the inclusion of a horse-drawn cart (instead of a tractor), from the rustic appearance of the mill, from the dress of the men and from the lack of telephone cables, electricity pylons, roads and bridges, we can deduce that this is a scene from nearly 200 years ago.
2. John Constable, The Haywain, 1821, oil on canvas; National Gallery, London
There are three things to be said here. First, what we have just done was not entirely difficult. It took no education in the history or theory of art to do it. It was all, really, just common sense. Second, we did what we did simply from the evidence presented to us by the text itself. We didn’t have to look up the life and times of the artist, or even find out what a ‘haywain’ is (it is actually a cart designed to carry hay) to understand the picture. We just looked for ourselves. It all made perfect sense in its own right.
This brings us to our third point: Constable’s Haywain is a relatively simple picture in which what we see is pretty well what we get. There are no flights of fancy here; it seems to reproduce a real scene just as we might have seen it ourselves had we stood on the same spot as the artist in 1821. It is a pleasant but relatively undemanding piece of work, which probably explains its popularity on calendars, greetings cards and chocolate boxes. It is not difficult to understand.
Looking at paintings such as this, then, need not require an art historical education. All it does require is a modicum of common sense, and a keen eye for observational detail. It is simple detective work based on readily apparent evidence.
So much for The Haywain. When we come to look at other paintings, though, we will find the same methodology very useful, especially if we apply the same sort of checklist or system to new or as yet unfamiliar works. It will help us take a disciplined, structured approach, which will guarantee at least some sort of result.
Imagine, then, that we are confronted with a ‘mystery painting’ about which we know nothing. There is no handy museum label and no gallery catalogue to help us. We need to get to work purely visually on the evidence presented by the ‘mystery text’ itself.
First, we can ask what kind of painting is it? Paintings are traditionally – and conveniently – sorted into genres or categories of work. A landscape, for example, is an outdoor scene whose main purpose is to depict what today we may describe as a physical environment. It may or may not have some people in it, but they usually only appear in supporting roles because it is the land and not the population that is the real point of interest. A landscape need not be an old-fashioned, rural scene, although modern, urban versions are often called ‘townscapes’ or ‘cityscapes’. Again, these may or may not have people in them, but the main focus is not the figures but, rather, the lie of the land. The same may be said of the landscape’s close relation, the ‘seascape’. There may be promontories, lighthouses or even the occasional ship, but the real point of a seascape is, of course, the sea.
A portrait, on the other hand, is a picture of a person. They may be shown full-length, half-length, head-and-shoulders or just the face. There may or may not be some sort of a background, and the ‘sitter’ (as the subject of a portrait is often called) might be holding some sort of a ‘prop’, such as a book or even a skull. The main focus remains the person shown or ‘portrayed’. Sometimes, there may be several people included at once (a ‘group portrait’), or the subject might be riding a horse (a ‘mounted portrait’). Occasionally, the portrait may be of an animal (such as a much-loved horse or cat), but these are more usually called ‘equestrian’ or simply ‘animal paintings’. If the subject (and we’re talking about humans again now) has no clothes on, we may call this a ‘nude portrait’; if the attention is on the body rather than the face or even the character, we may call this, simply, a ‘nude’.
The ‘still life’ is another easily recognized genre. This is a study of inanimate objects such as fruit, flowers or even household objects. The things depicted need not be remarkable in their own right, as still lives are often distinctly everyday in their subject matter. It is possible to speak of subdivisions within the still-life genre, such as ‘floral’ works (pictures of flowers) or even ‘game pieces’ (pictures of dead pheasants or hares). They all remain still lives, however.
Finally, and to help avoid confusion, it is worth also mentioning the so-called ‘genre painting’. A genre painting is a scene from everyday life. Often, the subject is domestic, but it can never be a remarkable or earth-shattering event if it is to remain a genre painting or piece. The genre painting is much less common than the landscape, portrait or still life, but it is worth mentioning here to pre-empt any confusion between a ‘genre of painting’ and a ‘genre painting’. The similarity of terms is not very helpful; hence the need for an explanation.
Of course, the similarity of terms is not the only problem in describing types or genres of painting. The terms themselves can often falsely suggest distinct and exclusive categories. When, for example, does a landscape become a seascape or a group portrait become a crowd scene? Might there not also be aspects (say) of still life in a genre painting? And what about the categories we haven’t even discussed, such as interiors or battle scenes? Categorizing a painting is not an exact science; nor is it a simple one. Broad classification into immediately recognizable genres is, however, a very useful place to start when beginning to describe a painting. If proof were needed, it is remarkable how many works can initially and simply be divided into these basic categories. Do remember, however, that they are best used to aid us rather than constrain us.
Second, when we tackle a painting for the first time, we can ask simply what is shown. If it is a portrait, for example, is the sitter male or female, young or old? We can approximate the age of someone in a portrait in much the same way we can someone sitting opposite us on a train: is their hair greying or balding? Is their face wrinkled, ‘laugh-lined’ or fresh? Is there any facial hair? Look at the hands as well as the neck. We can also make an educated guess as to their ethnic group – does the sitter appear Asian, Caucasian or Afric...

Table of contents

Citation styles for Visual Culture
APA 6 Citation
Howells, R., & Negreiros, J. (2019). Visual Culture (3rd ed.). Wiley. Retrieved from (Original work published 2019)
Chicago Citation
Howells, Richard, and Joaquim Negreiros. (2019) 2019. Visual Culture. 3rd ed. Wiley.
Harvard Citation
Howells, R. and Negreiros, J. (2019) Visual Culture. 3rd edn. Wiley. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Howells, Richard, and Joaquim Negreiros. Visual Culture. 3rd ed. Wiley, 2019. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.