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“Methods of Visual Culture”


by Nelu Vasilica

David Morgan’s public lecture on material religion provided the base for the next day “Methods of the study of visual culture: the structure of the visual field” teaching unit. Structured into two main parts, theoretical and practical, the “Visual culture” lecture  emphasised the possible  approaches in interpreting images from various visual fields, but did not provide a step by step methodology in terms of image analysis.

The introduction of the theoretical part highlighted the importance of different viewers perspectives and the images referents, followed by a clear definition of a gaze and its role in visual culture. According to Morgan, a gaze represents “a visual field that configures presence and absence, visibility and invisibility, along horizontal and vertical axes mediated by an image or object.” With regards to the gaze applicability, the most  conclusive  description was depicted in the following affirmation: “A gaze makes some things visible (present) while rendering others invisible (absent).“(Morgan’s presentation slides). The introduction was followed by a gaze classification, encompassed  by images and  short explanations. Morgan presented eight gaze categories: reciprocal, unilateral, occlusive, fun, disinterested, liminal, communal and virtual. Reciprocal gazes are common in most religions which approve images in their rituals such as: Hinduism or Christianity. Nevertheless, unlike in the case of areciprocal gaze between two or more human beings, this reciprocal gaze based on religious icons is highly dependent on the supplicant. In the case of unilateral gazes it can be observed a sort of one way communication in which  the ratio powerful-less powerful is the core of this representation. It could be assumed this type of images have a similar meaning as the human consciousness, sometimes associated with the voice of God in humans. This assumption might be related to Morgan   affirmation(„I think I owe him something“) on the image depicting a child with a malformed mouth. The occlusive gaze combines the reciprocal and unilateral categories with the mentioning that  the image is perceived in the same manner by both, referent and viewer. In order to emphasise the occlusive gaze, Morgan presented a Lutheran visual representation of Christ crucifixion in which God and sinner are both satisfied.

The fourth category, named very representative fun gaze embodied  people’s perception on artists images, which in many cases replace the  person behind the image. Everyone has a different picture of a certain artist or person based on  sympathy and feelings, on the on hand and on what is depicted by media, on the other.
The absorptive or disinterested gaze constitutes a more personal approach in which the viewer is completely detached from the real world and absorbed into his own. The medium which paves this transition is preponderantly an object of art, and the image of a woman walking unconscious in a stone labyrinth perfectly reflects this kenotic approach. In a different manner, the liminal gaze lead the viewer to a limit of visibility, to a place in which the referent becomes invisible. The images of a person sailing towards a cardinal point and of people travelling on their horses generate the feeling of visual distance and an “appropriate end”. By contrast with the abortive gaze, the communal gaze focuses on both people interaction and a focal point. This gaze is specific to mega-churches images were members do not assist to the sacred only, but interact by seeing or communicating with each other.
The last category, the virtual gaze is the perfect representation for the Second Life human projections, the avatars. Morgan exemplified virtual gazes by two examples:

  1. an image taken from the Jewish culture in which children are playing educative games involving dolls;
  2. an image depicting a person staring at a mannequin and imagining wearing the clothes exposed.

These eight categories highlighted the structure of the visual field and composed  the core of the theoretical part.
In the practical session, Morgan  involved the summer school participants in  analysing some images based on the theoretical framework previously discussed. The first image proposed an artefact representing  Jesus placed on a  merchant table. Although, at a first glance the placement of that object would make anyone to perceive it as a selling product, the merchant had another purpose behind it. According to Morgan, the retail person would keep Jesus image on his table for preventing  customers fraud. As a consequence, instead of a material meaning this object is spiritually empowered and the reciprocal gaze is replaced by the unilateral one. Furthermore, the image was analysed from other perspectives as well, such as the material used for the artefact and the historical roots of this image. It has been concluded an image could be perceived and interpreted differently by people, depending on their views, beliefs and socio-cultural backgrounds. It could be argued, the religious meaning of an image is directly proportional with the viewer knowledge with regards to the person depicted in a certain image. The image of Jesus, would have a strong impact for a Christian viewer, but perhaps a reduced  effect on a Buddhist. The variation of perceptions in terms of images and their meaning  was reflected in another image, exposing an Islam leader on a white horse. For an effective analysis various elements  were taken into consideration such as image size, colour pallet and  ratio between image components. Nevertheless, in evaluating this image  textual and contextual factors  demonstrated the image itself was created in accordance to the Islamic culture. For instance, the reason behind the blurry face of the religious leader represents  the Islam tradition in terms of visual representation. By contrast to other denominations, in Islam you can worship God only. Similarly with the previous image, the analysis and interpretation of this image relied on contextual knowledge. This argument was complemented by a Buddha statue placed in a museum agreeing upon the importance of statue placement in determining  valuable viewers interpretations.

Summarising these religious visual representations, the context plays a vital role in visual analysis and the image evaluation depends on viewer knowledge about what is depicted in a certain image.
Overall, David Morgan presented an interesting lecture on visual culture, providing different visual fields thorough which images could be classified and interpreted. As mentioned in his public lecture, the images cannot be completely understood by an “object-centred approach”  but placing them in a wider spectrum. Moreover, in one of his articles(“The visual construction of the sacred”), Morgan concluded the visual fields are the starting point for visual analysis and they have to be complemented by the “particular coordinates of actual viewers, images setting, and historical-cultural conditions”. Nevertheless, in the light of this complex matter regarding visual culture, a methodology framework would supply interesting techniques for image evaluation.

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