Visual Culture; Richard Howells

I don’t remember the last time, a “text-book” was this interesting. I just finished reading Visual Culture and it more than made for interesting reading. It is a thickish book – and I’ll admit – it seemed daunting when I picked it up.

There is however an ease to the presentation that Howells achieves which slips you in comfortably into the intricacies and complexities of Visual Culture. You are better off reading this book with an Internet connection handy, since not all references are available in the text – for reasons explained in the book: to keep the cost of the textbook down for the benefit of the students.

The book is divided in two parts – the first deals with the theory of visual culture – almost like defining the elements of grammar that we would learn for language and the second part takes up various media that allows us to practice this grammar on them.

In the theory section, Howells covers iconology, form, art history, ideology, semiotics and hermeneutics as the tools of the trade. As soon as we use the word theory – it bring up all possible guards for most of us. However as Howells says:

Do not be afraid of the word ‘theory’. Yes, it can sound dauntingly abstract at times, and in the hands of some writers can appear to have precious little to do with the actual, visual world around us. Good theory however, is an awesome thing. […] But unless we actually use it, it borders on the metaphysical and might as well not be used at all.

Howells lives up to this premise all through the book. The tools in the first part are well-employed in the second part – media – where he covers fine art, photography, film, television and new media. There is ample historical reference to all media – and the understanding of the media from the point of visual culture is well-contextualised.

One of the most important aspects of the book, however, is that Howells goes through the motions of introducing us to the theories and their sub-theories; he convinces us about the potency of the theory, and as we are about to be convinced of it, he flips it – and asks us to look at the opposite side of it – with equal conviction. He forces us to consider a theory in its own right – and demands that we draw our own conclusion and the application of a theory to a media form.

If you are new to visual culture and are intrigued by it, this is definitely a good start. Remember to have an Internet-enabled device handy. The references are many and useful.

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