Defining Visual Rhetorics: History of the Visual

Finnegan, Cara A. “Doing Rhetorical History of the Visual: The Photograph and the Archive.” Defining Visual Rhetorics. Eds. Charles A. Hill and Marguerite Helmers. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004. 3913-4305. Ebook.

steampunk_archive_icon_by_yereverluvinuncleber-d5jsav0Finnegan begins by discussing the visual rhetoric within a speech by FDR. She then compares it to a LOOK (pictorial magazine) layout on the same topic–poverty and the Depression (3943 of 6169).

Finnegan argues that identifying “visual rhetoric” as images specifically we are “reinforcing the subordinate status of visuality in the contexts of rhetorical culture” (3955 of 6169). Instead, she suggests that we “conceptualize visual rhetoric as a mode of inquiry” (3967 of 6169).

As a heuristic she suggests that we use “the tools of rhetorical history to sort out three moments in the life of an image for which a critic must account: production, reproduction, and circulation” (3975 of 6169).

Finnegan explicates David Zarefsky’s four senses of historical rhetoric and then says that the third (historical study of rhetorical events) and fourth (rhetorical study of historical events) (3997 of 6169) are both necessary for “doing rhetorical history of the visual” (4009 of 6169).

In her discussion of production (starting at 4030), Finnegan introduces the history of the technology of modern photography, the debut of picture magazines, and the FSA photographs which were printed in LOOK. She does not attempt a complete history, but introduces these three production ideas as a means of complicating/examining/illustrating the history of production (4076 of 6169).

As Finnegan moves into reproduction, she says we must look at what images “are made to do in the contexts in which we discover them… [T]he ways that the arrangement of image, text and caption work to create meaning in the contexts of particular rhetorical events” (4076 of 6169).

The context of the photographs is within a magazine that intended to “use photographs to tell narratives about real people in specific situations, but always in ways that cultivated universal interest” (4047 of 6169). Complicating this particular photograph spread is its positioning between an article on buying a wife in Zululand and a two-page centerfold of an actress in a bathtub full of flowers (4087 of 6169).

There is a lot of discussion of rhetorical issues: the child as a visual synecdoche, the distortion of scale, the irony of “children of the forgotten man” when the man isn’t pictured at all, the infantilization of the poor, the layout of the images…

Possible problems:
Finnegan argues that “the layout of the image [of an African-American girl by herself] in a circular shape” represents surveillance (4110 of 6169). The girl is being seen only through the camera lens.

I don’t think surveillance is an issue here. Most people of the time would not have thought of cameras as circular lenses. Historically round or oval frames were used for portrait photography in the late Victorian age and on into the Edwardian age. The time of the photograph (1937) makes it far more reminiscent of this than it does of the modern surveillance cameras (which I, at least, do not think of graphically as circles). If it were considered anything, I think it would most likely be “posed,” since photographs were not instantaneous.

This, I think, is one of the difficulties of doing historical rhetoric. Few rhetoricians are also historians and it is very easy, even for an academic, to get focused on one idea and not look for alternative explanations.

Finnegan says that the facts offered in the short and dramatic captions are “not credited to any kind of expert who might testify as to the accuracy of the facts” (4142 of 6169). However, the FSA are experts who produced the photographs and they felt the captions were well done (4208 of 6169).

Finnegan discusses the rhetorical presentation of the magazine (4164 of 6169), including how it contributes to views of poverty in the Depression (4174 of 6169).

Neil Betten argues there is a continuum of views on poverty from a “hostile view,” which blames the victim, to an “environmental view,” which faults the socioeconomic system (3, qtd in Finnegan 4174 of 6169).

The LOOK photo spread “seems to invite a hostile reading of the sharecroppers’ plight through its use of vivid images and dramatic text, [but] it also suggests a more environmental view through its deployment of the powerful trope of the ‘forgotten man'” (4186 of 6169).

Finnegan discusses the political advantages for FSA to have its photographs in LOOK and the fact that the photos were circulated in a number of different contexts, so their perception was not limited to the readers of LOOK, what Finnegan calls “the fluidity of the circulation of the FSA photographs” (4229 of 6169).

WC CC3 by Twice25
WC CC3 by Twice25
Related readings:
Blakesley, David and Collin Brooke. “Introduction: Notes on Visual Rhetoric.” Enculturation 3 (Fall 2001). Web.

Zarefsky, Davis. “Four Senses of Rhetorical History.” Doing Rhetorical History: Concepts and Cases. Ed. Kathleen J. Turner. Tuscaloosa, AL: U of Alabama P, 1998. 19-32.

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