What does it mean to be visually literate in the twenty-first century? How do visual images shape our identities, our sense of agency, our ways of knowing? This course is intended for any student interested in thinking about images $8212; especially those that travel between the worlds of publishing, journalism, advertisement, the museum, and entertainment — and how they create meaning, why they matter, and how to engage with them critically. We’ll begin by considering how to “read” still and moving images, and work together to develop analytic skills for understanding images as visual texts in relation to other kinds of texts. Looking at specific contexts from the nineteenth-century to the contemporary U.S., we’ll go on to consider how the forms and circulation of images have shaped broader cultural narratives—for example, about America and Americans, about economic life, about what it means to be modern. Along the way, we’ll think about the impact that once-new forms of visual media (photography, panorama, stereography and cinema, up through digital imaging) have had on their users and their cultural landscapes.
Figures we’re likely to encounter include: Louis Daguerre, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and other inventors of imaging processes and devices; early filmmakers D.W. Griffith and G.A. Young, and successors like Francis Ford Coppola and Sergio Leone; famed photographers — Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Roy DeCarava — and the writers who worked with them; digital avant-gardists like Jeff Wall, An-My Le, and Aziz+Kucher; and a rich cast of characters who have responded influentially to the power of images, from Charles Baudelaire and Frederick Douglass to Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes.
Class requirements will likely include active and engaged participation; a reading/viewing journal; occasional in-class writings and assignments; and a final exam.
No previous experience with images or with humanities study is required; throughout, we’ll emphasize hands-on work and development of critical skills.