Thursday, September 27, 2007

Abstract of "Seeing Beyond Belief"

Description of Article
I really enjoy this article because of its straightforward approach of explaining cultural studies as applied to visual artifacts. To begin with, Lister and Wells offer a definition of Cultural Studies in general: " academic field [...] interested in the enabling and regulating institutions, and less formal social arrangements, in and through which culture is produced, enacted and consumed" (61). I am surprised that this definition doesn't include mention of the artifacts themselves that are objects or conveyors of "culture." The authors elaborate by saying that "a distinctive feature of Cultural Studies is the search to understand the relationships of cultural production, consumption, belief and meaning, to social processes and institutions"(61). The rest of the article breaks down that definition by applying it to the study of visual media.
Researchers are interested in various elements of an image. These include: 1)the image's "social life and history"
2)it's "cycle of production, circulation, and consumption" and
3)it's "specific material properties"(64).
The analysis of the image is broken into two parts: the context of viewing and the context of production. Within the context of viewing we should ask certain questions:
1)Where is the image?
2)Why is the viewer looking at the photograph?
(Is it idle or purposeful looking?)
Within the context of production, we should another question:
1)How did the image get there?
The authors then go on to talk about ways of analyzing the "specific material properties" of a piece. If I am understanding correctly, they refer to these properties as originating from conventions within the visual format, and say that these conventions have sociological, literary, and art historical roots. Interestingly, the authors bring the idea of pictorial conventions back to the concept of signification, pointing out that often signs are arbitrary-- that the signifier or physical symbol or a thing may not bear much resemblance to the signified (what the thing stands for). I thought of the typical clip-art version of a tree as I was reading this. I have never seen a tree that looks like that signifier and yet I know exactly what is signified when I see that symbol. These conventions exist within every art medium--these authors spend a lot of time addressing the conventions within the world of photography.
Some of the impotant conventional operations in photography are:
1)framing (of the subject)--the "edges or boundaries of the picture"
2)gaze (of the subject)--are we viewer voyeurs or is the subject looking back at us?
There is a very interesting tangent to this piece, in which the authors show how the voyeuristic gaze (seeing but not being seen) can tend to make the viewer "objectify" the subject.
3)camera position
4)physical proximity (to the subject) and the viewer's position in relation to the subject's position(88).
5)lighting--it's quality, what it highlights and obscures
7)the depth of the field--how much of the scene is in sharp focus.
In treating the subject of a photograph, the fotographer relies on the viewer's knowledge of social conventions to understand the significance of the piece. We learn these conventions through our lived experience with the world. For example, we need to be able to understand the feelings of the subjects by observing their body language and facial expressions.
The analysis of these conventions shows us that photographs can be "complexely coded cultural artifacts"(89). Barthes identified this coded meaning as "the rhetoric of the image"(90).
Comments and Questions
As I am writing this abstract, I realize I am confused by the term "conventions" because I think of "conventional"--in other words, to me, conventions are the traditional and recognized way of doing things. So to say that photographers follow conventions means to me that they stick to an ordered process of photography. On page 74 the authors say that "the use of conventions by photographers is a matter of assimilated 'know-how', a trained sense of 'this is how to do it' gained 'on the job' and by observing what does and does not 'work' in concrete situations." However, the photographs that most catch our eye are the ones that break certain conventional models of photography. For example, Mapplethorpe's "Portrait of Clifton" is so jarring because it doesn't follow traditional methods---the proximity of the subject, the use of lighting, the subject's gaze--all of these are untraditional and therefore, call the viewer's attention.

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