Visual Methodologies (Gillian Rose) / by Mark Epstein

This initial discussion addresses how to look at my own images and how I might start organising an approach to understanding visual images more generally. It is less a discussion of my photography and more an exploration of the method by which I might discuss photography, including my own photography. In these posts, I will draw on the work of various writers in terms of the argument(s) they propose but also, I’m interested in how different writers structure their ideas; that is, the style and register they adopt to advance particular arguments. If photography is allowed to range from the formality of pictorialism to the freedom of the snapshot aesthetic and beyond formality to abstraction, why does writing about photography have to dwell in the formal surroundings of the academic essay? What are the acceptable limits of this genre within the confines of an academic approach to writing about photography. In other words, if I’m mucking about in my photographs, how much am I allowed to muck about in my writing about photography?  

So, how can I go about understanding visual images? Gillian Rose in her book Visual Methodologies proposes a critical approach to this question. It breaks down into three stages:  

1. Take images seriously. This is not as stupid as it sounds. Social scientists are accused by art historians of being more concerned with the meanings that surround visual images than with the images themselves. Rose is arguing that this is a necessary initial step because images are “not entirely reducible to their context.” (Rose, 17). By this, she means that although generalisations about images may be possible, they do not tell the whole story and that “visual representations have their own effects.” (Rose, 17). For this reason, we must start with the picture and spend time exploring its qualities, discussing how it works and only then, can we start to enquire outwards from the image content.  

2. Which leads to the second stage. “A critical approach to visual culture….thinks about the social conditions and effects of visual objects.” (Rose, 16 & 17) (my italics). Any visual representation is a form of cultural practice and such practices grow out of and produce social inclusions and exclusions. A critical account of any social practice “needs to address both these practices and their cultural meanings and effects.” So now we are in the land of culture; of power, feminism, class and all kinds of stuff I haven’t even begun to consider. One possible idea to follow is Elizabeth Edward’s work on the materiality of images. This seems to sit outside of the image’s content and speak more about the photograph’s life as an object within various social settings. If my project is to be in the form of a series of postcards, these material objects open up the possibility of a romp around their different social meanings, means of production and the value (or lack thereof) placed upon them by the spectator.  

3. “Consider your own way of looking at images.” This is not an explicit concern in many studies of visual culture however, if as John Berger asserts, that ways of seeing are historically, geographically, culturally and socially specific, then it is important that the critic of visual images needs to reflect on how they are looking. I would take this argument one step further for myself. If I am a photographer making images and then offering a critique of those images, I need to reflect not only on my own way of seeing photographs but my own way of taking photographs but this is not straightforward. It has been said (not sure by who) that all photographers are actually photographing themselves. If I insert critical analysis too carefully in too controlled a manner, into the moment I push the shutter, then I kill the photograph. Photography for me is not about thinking, it’s about feeling. At this stage I’m not sure how to square this one.  

“Visual imagery is never innocent; it is always constructed through various practices, technologies and knowledges. A critical approach to visual images is therefore needed: one that thinks about the agency of the image, considers the social practices and effects of its viewing, and reflects on the specificity of that viewing by various audiences, including the academic critic.”                                               

                                                                                                       (Rose, 17) 

Rose, G., 2012. Visual Methodologies. 3rd ed. London: Sage.