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The study and conceptualization of visual representation were primarily associated with art and art history prior to the twentieth century, and drew on the analytical tools of iconology with a focus on the artist’s intention and perception. With the advent of semiotics, followed by other theories of the visual, the twentieth century marked a broadening in conceptions of visual representation from the realm of art to the realm of the everyday. This includes studies of images in film, the use of photography, advertising, scientific imagery, learning and development, and the representation of social identities. This expansion of the domain of the visual has influenced how visual representation is theorized and approached, including a shift in focus from the image to contexts of production and viewers. Today a range of theories is applied to understanding the visual, including theories drawn from anthropology, art history, cognitive psychology, cultural studies, linguistics, psychoanalytical theories, and sociology.
The twenty-first century is marked by a plethora of imaging and visual technologies, and in contemporary western society everyday life is saturated with the images that these technologies make available. Studies of late twentieth-century culture have noted a “turn to the visual” (Mirzoeff 1999) in which the modern world has become a visual phenomenon; a world that conflates looking, seeing, and knowing to become a “vision machine” created through new visualizing technologies in which people are all caught (Virilio 1994).
There is a general agreement that the meaning of an image is ‘made’ at three sites. First, semiotics proposes that there is a wide range of visual, pictorial, material, and symbolic signs that are conventional in the way that they simplify, and yet bear some kind of resemblance to, an object or quality in the ‘real’ world that they signify. What is depicted in an image and how it is represented are an obvious starting point for understanding the process of visual representation. Second, the economics, motives, and intentions of those who produce and disseminate visual representations are aspects of the site of production. That is, visual representations need to be understood in context because these social factors and experiences are not separate from the signifying systems of the visual, but structure it. Third, understanding the agency of the viewer demands a shift of analytical emphasis away from the image or text to the social identities and experiences of the viewer. From this perspective, meaning is understood as constituted in the articulation between the viewer and the viewed, between the power of the image to signify, and the viewer’s capacity to interpret meaning.
Signification and how to theorize the relationship between referent, signifier, and signified are central to the way visual representation is conceptualized. Current theories of perception, structuralism, poststructuralism, and postmodernism theorize their relationship in different ways. This influences how the power of visual representation is understood to shape people’s experience of the world, what the world is, and what it can be.
The visual produces as well as represents culture, constituting (and constituted by) its relations of power and difference, so that cultures of everyday life are entwined with practices of representation. In the ways that people are depicted, vision is complicit with power and discipline through surveillance. Understanding visual representation as embodying and constituting ideologies shows how ways of investing meaning in the world are realized in visual representations. Looking at how representations attempt to fix difference offers a way of conceptualizing the complex relationship of power and representation. Visual representations are, then, a discursive means by which a dominant group works to establish and maintain hegemonic power within a culture in which meaning is constantly reproduced and remade as signs are articulated and rearticulated. Images are thus a site of struggle for meaning, a site of power, and constitutive of society.
- Hall, S. (1997). Representation: Cultural representations and signifying practices. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Kress, G. & van Leeuwen, T. (2006). Reading images: A grammar of visual design. London: Routledge.
- Lester, P. (2013). Visual communication: Images with messages, 6th edn. Andover: Cengage Learning.
- Mirzoeff, N. (1999). An introduction to visual culture. London: Routledge.
- Mitchell, W. J. T. (1995). Picture theory: Essays on verbal and visual representation. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
- Virilio, P. (1994). The vision machine. Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press.