Essay and Visual: The Cultural Work of an Image
In this last assignment, you will write an essay and create a visual document about the cultural work of an image.
1. The Choice of Image
You can choose an image from the present day or from history. It should be a public image that circulated via print or the Internet. The image may be an independent work like a painting, part of another work like a magazine or album cover or an advertisement, or a screen shot from a video or film. In the case of video or film, the shot you choose to analyze should be emblematic of the cultural work of the whole, and lend itself to the kinds of "close reading" described below.
2. The Essay
Write an five-to-seven-page essay analyzing a single image. Talk about the image in terms not simply of what it shows--as if it were just a window through which we were viewing the subject--but as an example of cultural work that the creator of the image is performing.
First, a definition:
Cultural work is the process by which writing or pictures reinforce current structures of feeling, thinking or acting in a culture, or enable individuals in a culture to rehearse new patterns of feeling/thinking/acting that history has made necessary.
To explain the cultural work of the image as something deliberately constructed and actively viewed, look at the image in four ways:
- the historical and social context in which the image was presented, received, circulated, and consumed, which includes...
- ...the story of the cultural moment for a specific, audience
(For instance, the image might be part of the process of an audience struggling to maintain a sense of order and stability, or chafing under the status quo which to them is the dead weight of the past, or they might be tenuously approaching new norms, new feelings, new ideas that seem simultaneously threatening and promising)
- the information design of the image (as in Tufte) by which its contents reveal essentail facts about its subject
- the visual design of the image (as in McCloud, or class discussion of camera work) which control and condition point of view, judgements, impressions, etc.
Introduce your image and its context. Work into the opening a thesis—that is, a moment in the introduction when you explicitly say what ultimately you want your reader to take from the essay about the cultural work of your chosen image.
To discuss the cultural work of a picture from the news, from an advertisement, from an album cover, etc. you'll need to discover and discuss the image's context, which might include:
- who made the image and perhaps when/where,
- where the image was/is originally presented,
- what audience the image was intended for
- the "cultural moment" of the image (what the subject matter signified when it was first presented)
- an historical sense of how the audience at the time would have interpreted
Once you've established the cultural context of the image, you're ready to look specifically at how the image itself performs its cultural work within that context. First, discuss the work as Edward Tufte would, using terms and critical concepts from Visual Explanations.
How do we know what we know looking at the image? How does it provide information about who, what, when, where, why, how much, etc. Using Tufte is particularly helpful in talking about the words that are included in or with the image (direct labels). How does the image convey information relevant to its cultural work by including what Tufte calls direct labels, coding (both color and cultural) and self-representing scales? Be sure to quote and cite Tufte when appropriate.
Next, "read" the image with the critical tools that Scott McCloud provides in Understanding Comics, or that we've discussed in class. While you may look at the very same details as you did in the Tufte section, here you'll use McCloud to explore how the image performs its cultural work in terms of visual design. How does the composition and viewpoint of the image speak to our emotions, represent power relationships, control our reactions? Be sure to quote and cite McCloud or the course web site when appropriate.
You'll end the essay with a conclusion that brings your analysis to a satisfying conclusion.
A good technique for conclusions to end by giving the reader something extra or new (but still relevant, of course) that hasn't already been presented in the paper.
A Note on Style and Voice
As you introduce your image, your critical sources and other elements required by the assignment, try to speak of them as if they were a natural part of your argument or discussion. Try not to refer to the assignment, or imply that you're analyzing this image or using these sources because you have to (even though you do).
For example, if you say "The image I've chosen to analyze is...," you're suggestion that the choice of an image has somehow been forced upon you. Better to start by talking about why the image is interesting and significant, as if you just couldn't help but write an essay about it.
Remember to number your pages.
Citation and Documentation
Be sure to cite sources and page numbers (parenthetically in the text) and document those sources (in a "Works Cited" section at the end) using MLA format. Cite any quotations, paraphrased ideas or unique information you use from those sources. Also include a Works Cited entry for the source of your image.
3. The Visual
Drawing on what we've learned in the previous assignments, you will create a visual complement to your essay project. It might be a set of data graphics that provide background and support for your essay's argument, a confection that analytically explains some complex idea or situation described by your essay, or a visual sequence that summarizes and visualizes your essay's argument with words, images, and perhaps sound in the style of book trailers (see, for example, Offworld, Circles, An Amish Christmas) or of text-based video ("The Machine is Us/ing Us").
The genre of and audience for your visual would depend on the choice of format.
- A set of data graphics might serve as an illustration included with the text of the essay to support and elaborate its discussion.
- A confection might serve as a "cover image" for the essay, or a poster you might prepare for a "poster session" at an academic conference on Visual Rhetoric.
- A visual sequence might be posted to your web site to enable visitors to click to a web-friendly summary of your essay, perhaps to entice them to download and read it.
Sample Images, Contexts, and Resources
- The Accidental Tourist
- displacement as cultural work.
- George Mahlberg's In-A-Gadda-Da-Oswald (1996)--a.k.a. "Oswald in a Jam," a Photoshopped mash-up of Bob Jackson's famous photo of Jack Ruby shooting Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald (1963) while he was in police custody--with Malhlberg's commentary.
- The handout "Three paragraphs from a Sample 'Cultural Work of an Image' Essay" (.doc)
- Introducing an essay