Introduction to Visual Rhetoric

The poet Robert Bly once argued that the image was a particular form of intelligence, a nexus of emotional and intellectual information capable of presenting an entire in a moment of looking (or in Bly’s case, reading a poem).

Our culture is a visual one. Every day we are bombarded with thousands of ads, TV commercials, music videos, store window displays, and iPhone apps. Reading and analyzing these images requires its own unique form of visual literacy, one that asks critical questions about how such images reach their audiences and what they tell us about history, culture, and identity.


Refer to the handout “Analyzing Visual Images” from class while considering some of the images below as examples:


Dorothea Lange's famous photograph "Migrant Mother," taken during the Great Depression in the 1930s, is a portrait. Historically, only wealthy people could afford to have their portraits painted, but the advent of photographic technology made portraiture more readily available.



"John, Day of Release" by Michael Stipe is also a portrait, but it defies some of the conventions of portraiture by focusing on the subject's hands rather than his face, as we might expect.



The scale of the shoes in this photograph, compared to the scale of the man and the Eiffel tower in the background, capture our attention because they are not what we expect.


This photograph by Margaret Bourke-White employs the rule of thirds to make the balance in the picture interesting: 2/3 of the photograph are devoted to the billboard while 1/3 is taken up by the people in the breadline below. This photograph also makes use of contrast to make its argument.



As with written tecxts, visual ones acquire meaning from their immediate context, as well as the larger sociohistorical moment in which we read them and in which they were composed.


The unusual context of this ad campaign - printed on a park bench - makes a striking argument, especially at a time when more and more people find themselves unemployed and/or in danger of losing their homes.



This parody of a Marlboro ad depends on the reader's familiarity with the Marlboro Man and also with colonialism and an increasingly globalized economy.



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