Looking at the History of Modern Visual Culture
Curated/Reviewed by Matthew A. McIntosh
Visual Culture is human culture based on visual media — pictures, sculpture, and (sometimes) dance— as opposed to oral culture and print culture, based on language, words, and writing.
The oldest evidences of human intellectual and cultural activity, dating back some 25,000 years B.C.E., are cave paintings of objects, human figures, animals and symbols. Although humans may have had language and words then, their culture, insofar as they could record anything and depict it for following generations, was a visual one. Humans have been making drawings, sculpture, and other artifacts of visual culture for at least 27,000 years, and visual culture, as a permanently-depicted expression of human ingenuity and cultural creativity, predates written culture.
The Invention of Photography
By the early years of the nineteenth century, it had already been long known that, when focused with a lens, light would create an image (inverted) of what was on the other side of the lens. Indeed, the term “camera” originally meant “room,” and closed darkened rooms known as “camera obscura,” with a lens in one wall that would focus an image on the opposite wall, had been known and used for some time, for amusement if nothing more. The problem was that these images were evanescent; there was no known way of preserving them, even though it had been known for some time that light would leave an imprint on certain surfaces and objects. But on January 7, 1839, after more than a decade of work, French painter Louis Daguerre announced to the French Academy of Sciences the discovery of what would come to be called photography.
A newspaper report of the time noted, “M. Daguerre has found the way to fix the images which paint themselves within a camera obscura, so that these images are no longer transient reflections of objects, but their fixed and everlasting impress which, like a painting or engraving, can be taken away from the presence of objects.” (Gazette de France, January 6, 1839. Quoted in Newhall, History of Photography, 19.)
English scientist and scholar, William Henry Fox Talbot, was astonished when he heard the news of Daguerre’s achievement because he had independently invented a technique that seemed to be the same as or very much like Daguerre’s. That same year, English astronomer and scientist, Sir John Herschel found the means of fixing the photographic image when that image was made on silver-salt coated media — Daguerre’s method used a different process that produced what are known as daguerreotypes — by using a chemical that was then called “hyposulphite of soda” (its chemical name today is sodium thiosulfate); photographers today frequently call it “hypo” or “fixer.” Herschel also proposed the term photography instead of Talbot’s phrase “photogenic drawing,” and the terms positive and negative instead of “reversed copy and “re-reversed copy,” terms that are now universally used.
Technological Change, Motion Pictures, Television
Photography was the first of three technological developments that would bring about a profound change in human culture at the end of the second millennium, taking us from a print culture, based primarily on words and printing, to an increasingly image-based, or visual, culture.
The second technological innovation came with Thomas Edison’s invention of the motion picture apparatus—he called it the kinetoscope—in the early 1890s. The motion picture would spawn an enormous industry and art form built on this technological innovation, becoming the dominant art form of the twentieth century that remains unabated today. Edison himself did not foresee the use of motion pictures for entertainment; he thought movies would be used only or primarily for education. In the beginning, motion pictures were silent, so the form of expression was purely visual. Not until about 1930 did sound recording appear, and the marriage of sound and motion pictures produced a hybrid medium that combined both visual and verbal cultures.
The third technological innovation leading to a visual culture was television. Work had begun on this as early as the 1890s, but the actual invention of television came about in the period between World War I and World War II, and some broadcasting of television programs in the United States, England, and Germany began at that time. With the coming of the war, however, this activity nearly ceased, and TV did not come into full prominence until the years following World War II.
Each of these three technological innovations spawned an enormous industry, and each had a profound effect on human thinking and behavior.
The Medium is the Message
The late media guru Marshall McLuhan, known for his slogan “The medium is the message,” argued that no strict separation can be made between a medium and the message that this medium conveys. Following on the inspiration of formalism, he believed that the “content” cannot be easily separated from its “form.”
The coming of the automobile at the beginning of the twentieth century and television in the second half are important examples of the ways technology imposed itself on human culture, resulting in enormous cultural transformations, so much so that it is difficult to think of much if anything in human life that remained unchanged by these technologies. Whether Henry Ford set out to change the world or realized he was doing so, that was the actual result. The advent of TV broadcasting and a TV set in every home did not mean that the pre-television world continued as before, with just a new means of propagating the messages of that pre-TV world. Instead, TV itself created and continues to create a new world culture, at least partly, without regard to the wishes of the viewers.
In his book Understanding Media McLuhan noted: “The personal and social consequences of any medium — that is, of any extension of ourselves — result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology.” (1994 ed., 7) On the next page he wrote, “The ‘message’ of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pattern that it introduces into human affairs.” (1994 ed., 8)
If McLuhan was correct, the coming of visual culture — visual media — changed the ways that humans perceived and understood both themselves and the world, and changed the kinds of interactions humans had with the world. A medium is not just a passive thing to be used by humans with total human control, but is, instead, an active agent that determines, to some extent, how humans life will be lived in connection with and response to that medium, enabling certain relationships while discouraging others.
Oral Culture, Speech, and Written Culture
Oral culture predated written culture. In preliterate societies, the ancient lore and legends, as well as the knowledge necessary for carrying on human life and affairs, were passed on orally. In these societies, the most important roles, next to the ruler’s, were those of the poets and storytellers who passed on the lore of the culture through recitation of oral tradition, dance and picture-making.
Speech itself is a kind of code, a way of expressing perceived experience in sounds that have conventional meanings. All the forerunners of writing were based on pictures — what is called pictographic, or writing that is pictorial in character. Eventually, words came to be expressed in conventional signs, and logographic writing, or writing in which individual signs represent individual words, was developed. Chinese is the best example of such writing today.
In other places phonetization—the division of words into phonetic parts—occurred, eventually making possible the development of alphabets, or signs for phonetic parts. From this came the development of writing based on alphabets, or a system of about thirty or fewer letters or characters. Written language is a code too, a second-level code, if we consider speech to be first-level. The development of alphabetic writing removed writing and literacy from any necessary ties to pictographic culture.
While many take it for granted, written language is also a form of technology, with its own technological determinations. In The Alphabet Effect, author Robert Logan described it this way:
… a medium of communication is not merely a passive conduit for the transmission of information, but rather an active force in creating new social patterns and new perceptual realities. A person who is literate has a different worldview than one who receives information exclusively through oral communication. The alphabet, independent of the spoken languages it transcribes or the information it makes available, has its own intrinsic impacts. (24, 25)
The development of writing and written language had its shortcomings and did not please everyone. In one of his surviving letters, Plato, for example, expressed a definite preference for oral communication because he had strong reservations about the ability of the written word to convey the true and complete understanding of what he wished to say. In addition, because writing was difficult and depended on laborious hand-copying, written materials were scarce and reserved for the few. For that reason, until much later, cultural gatekeepers—kings and princes, priests, scribes, the educated few—could and did control the messages that were delivered to the many. Literacy itself was available to the few. In the Middle Ages, for example, the Roman Catholic Church used many non-written means—stained glass windows, paintings, dance, and other visual and oral communications—to convey its messages to the common people, most of whom were illiterate.
The work of Johannes Gutenberg in creating the printing press further cemented and expanded the role of writing, literacy, and word-based culture in Europe of the fifteenth and following centuries. Gutenberg’s invention and work made books and printing cheap, plentiful, and accessible to common people. Some commentators have argued that Gutenberg’s invention was a major factor in the demise of feudalism and the monarchy system, the coming of the Protestant Reformation, and the rise of the Enlightenment and political democracy. [See the article printing for some comments on these points and for some references concerning them.]
The Human Brain and Written vs. Visual Culture
From neurological investigations done in this century, we now know that there is an asymmetry in the human brain. The left brain controls the right side of the body, and the right brain controls the left. Moreover, at least in right-handed persons — meaning about 90 percent of us — studies of split-brain patients have shown that the left brain controls speech and abstract thinking, willing, analysis, logic, discrimination, and numeracy (our ability to calculate and work with numbers).
In contrast, the right brain deals with spatial perception, facial recognition, and music appreciation. The right brain seems to be more visually oriented, “synthesizing multiple converging determinants so that the mind can grasp the senses’ input all-at-once [italics in original],” as Leonard Shlain puts it in his book The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image. He continues, “The right brain is nonverbal. … It comprehends the language of cries, gestures, grimaces, cuddling, sucking, touching, and body stance. Its emotional states are under little volitional control and betray true feelings through fidgeting, blushing, or smirking.” (18, 19)
If that account of the differences in the brain is accurate, then the development of speech and especially literacy — the ability to read and to work with written language — came to favor one aspect of the human brain and human personality over the other. In writing and literacy, we use and emphasize will, speech, abstraction, analysis, logic, discrimination, and numeracy. Thus, the use of writing has tended to crowd out of human life those aspects of personality that were emphasized with preliterate, more visual culture: spacial and gestalt perception, music creation and appreciation, image recognition, perception of the form or style of speech over content, aesthetic appreciation, and visual-pattern recognition. Literary culture, therefore, tends to emphasize the left-brain aspects and to neglect or even denigrate the right-brain aspects.
In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell argues that cognition based on visual perception alone is often much quicker and more accurate than cognition based on or influenced by words and logic. In the following example, he points out that the cognitive aspect of the brain can sometimes even undermine our more intuitive visual perceptions.
Picture, in your mind, the face of the waiter or waitress who served you the last time you ate at a restaurant, or the person who sat next to you on the bus today. …if I were to ask you to pick that person out of a police lineup, could you do it? I suspect you could. Recognizing faces is a classic example of unconscious cognition. …but suppose I were to ask you to take pen and paper and write down in as much detail as you can what a person looks like. …Believe it or not, you will now do a lot worse at picking that face out of a lineup. This is because the act of describing a face has the effect of impairing your otherwise effortless ability to subsequently recognize that face. (119)
The reason, Gladwell explains, is that drawing attention away from the visual to the cognitive interferes with visual memories.
Your brain has a part (the left hemisphere) that thinks in words, and a part (the right hemisphere) that thinks in pictures, and what happened when you described the face in words was that your actual visual memory was displaced. Your thinking was bumped from the right to the left hemisphere. …when it comes to faces, we are an awful lot better at visual recognition than we are at verbal description. (119, 120)
The Re-emergence of Visual Culture
The development of photography meant that a mass image-based culture could begin to emerge again, after visual culture had been overwhelmed by verbal and literate culture. To be sure, many innovations in drawing and painting had been achieved, and images had figured widely in the prephotographic age; but they depended on the skill and perception of the image-maker. Paintings were also expensive—only the wealthy could afford to have pictures made of themselves. Moreover, this took a great deal of time and work, so it could be done only rarely, and making copies required the same painstaking one-at-a-time hand drawing process by skilled artists.
Photography did not depend on drafting or painting skill but on learning the technical craft of photography. Lenses cast finer lines and finer discriminations than could be made by the most skilled draftsman. Photography was quick and relatively cheap. In addition, important advances in lens-making and in the processes introduced by Daguerre and Fox Talbot were made by the end of the 1840s. Soon photography had spread throughout Europe, Russia, America, South America, and as far east as Tokyo.
In the first two or three decades most daguerreotypes were portraits of people, but views of cities, architectural studies, panoramas, news events, and travel pictures were also taken. In addition to its use as an artistic medium, photography quickly became recognized as a new form of communication.
The first extensive war photography was undertaken by the Englishman Roger Fenton in the Crimean War in 1855. The best-known early use of photography in war was by Mathew Brady and others in the American Civil War. Before the invention of photography, war could be thought of as a romantic adventure. But photographs of the brutality and dullness of war made people aware of its reality, so much so that photographs and newsreels were mostly banned from World War I because the political and military leaders knew that allowing the war to be seen would lead to loss of support for their war efforts. During World War II and subsequent wars, what came to be called photojournalism — journalism done with camera instead of in words — gained importance.
Multichannel Visual vs. Monochannel Verbal Perception
Visual perception is multi-channeled in the human mind, while verbal perception is single-channeled. If you hear several voices or different pieces of music simultaneously, unless you attend to only one the result is cacophony — you are unable to perceive anything but noise.
Visual perception is different. In 1968 a movie called The Thomas Crown Affair was released, directed by Norman Jewison. It depicts a rich Boston tycoon (Steve McQueen) who, because he is bored, masterminds the perfect bank robbery, and the insurance company investigator (Faye Dunaway) who works to catch him. This film is noteworthy in that it uses a split screen to show multiple actions taking place simultaneously. Although not the first film to use this technique, it was the first commercial Hollywood film to do so.
Jewison has written, “I realized that the eye is able to take in more than one image at a time as long as the viewer is not distracted by dialogue.” He explained further, “The technique enables you to convey a tremendous amount of information very quickly – we were able to tell five different stories simultaneously.” (“Chess With Sex,” 58, 59) The eye can absorb that many different things at once without confusion or overload, but the ear’s inability to take in multiple soundtracks — multiple dialogues — at the same time is further evidence of the greater power of visual perception compared with perception of aural (word-based) communication.
The Centrality of TV
Television is by far the most important of the technological and cultural innovations leading toward visual culture. TV is based on photography. It has moving images along with sound, like talking motion pictures. It appeals to the visual, intuitive, logic-avoiding right brain and bypasses the critical, evaluative, logical, and linguistic processing of the left brain.
But TV has considerably more power and influence than any other visual media. Photographs do not move. To go to the movies we have to dress up and leave our homes. We also have to buy tickets. And at the movies, we have only a few choices, and we have to enter and leave according to the theater’s schedule.
With TV in our homes, we do not need to dress up and go out, buy a ticket, and mingle with strangers. At home, we can turn the TV on or off as we like and can talk during viewing without disturbing strangers. TV also brings the outer world — news, entertainment, sports, travelogues, fashions, nature studies, documentaries, movies — into our immediate space and makes it all domestic. The outer becomes the inner. When motion picture newsreels were shown in a theater along with the featured movie, the outer world of news and events remained outside, at least to some extent. Moreover, one had to go out and attend the newsreel when it was being shown. Today, with the coming of home video recorders, one can set the machine to record anything that is broadcast at any time and then one can watch it at leisure, whenever one wants to do so, so there is no longer any necessary tie between when something is broadcast and when the viewer watches it.
A sea-change in the culture occurred in the presidential election of 1960, with the televised debates between the candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Most people who heard these debates on the radio (verbal culture) thought Nixon had won. Nixon’s performance in the debate corresponded to linguistic, left-brain rules. But Kennedy realized — either intuitively or consciously — that the rules of TV are different, and his performance corresponded to the nonlinguistic, right-brain rules that apply to TV. He looked better than Nixon on TV, and looking better meant that, by the standards of visual communication, he had won the TV interchange with Nixon. Since the country had by then entered the TV age, this meant that, after all, Kennedy had won the debate. At least partly because of this, he went on to win that (very close) election.
The Kennedy-Nixon debates were just one in a long series of changes that would be brought about by TV. Before that time, although TV may have existed, it was a small force in political and public affairs. But now it became increasingly dominant. TV coverage or exposure began to be the criterion of existence and value. To be on TV meant to exist. To fail to be on TV meant oblivion, no matter how much ink was devoted to the person or event.
Beyond political and public affairs, TV has had other far-reaching effects. It has brought the world of commerce into our homes and has influenced children tremendously. Now children typically spend much more time watching TV than they spend on their homework. This may be good or bad, depending on many considerations, including whether one thinks that left-or right-brain interests should prevail.
The late Abbie Hoffman, one of the leaders of the “Yippies,” a 1960s youth movement in America, commented in one of his books on the importance of TV to the sensibilities and interests of his generation. His was the first generation to grow up watching TV. Hoffman advocated many hours of TV viewing, saying that this would lead a person to become a radical like him. And more than one commentator has noted that TV coverage of the Vietnam War and the corresponding antiwar protests, brought into people’s homes every evening, was perhaps the dominant factor leading to loss of public support for that war.
Education and Visual Culture
Since the coming of written language, education has been nearly synonymous with literacy: To say that a person is literate has been practically equal to saying that he is educated. Conversely, a person who is illiterate is considered to be not just someone who is unable to read — he is denigrated as being less than what he ought to be as a human. Thus, written language made possible — indeed it frequently required — the severing of the previous tie that had existed between human culture and knowledge and the visual. Although for sighted people there remained the tie between sight and reading, the existence of Braille writing for the blind shows that even this tie was not a necessary one.
A serious conflict exists between those whose model or paradigm for education is literacy and those interested primarily in visual culture. More than one person steeped in literary culture has declared that if one wants well-educated and well-behaved children, the first thing to do is ban TV from the home. Many educators decry the large amount of time that children spend watching TV and the small amount of time they spend reading.
With literacy, we have two millennia or more of development of criteria for relevance, criticism, logic, adequacy, and judgment. In fact, those criteria themselves are part of literary culture — part of the left-brain processing mechanism that creates and uses language and writing. But visual culture bypasses all that — it is based on those holistic, gestalt, uncritical, intuitive faculties and processing mechanisms that we are calling right-brain. Thus, there is an inevitable conflict between literary and visual culture. Those who think that word-based literary culture is or should be the norm — intellectually, morally, educationally, politically — will tend to see visual culture, and especially its rise to dominance, as a threat to everything that they perceive as being true and good.
Those immersed in visual culture usually do not have words and concepts to criticize the other side — since words, concepts, and criticism are more or less foreign to the right-brain experience and mode of being — so they tend to ignore their linguistic-culture-based critics, content to continue as creators and receptors of visual culture while critics tend to see them, especially the nonverbal ones, as vegetative receptors.
The Advent of the Computer Screen
A fourth technological development in the rise of visual culture has now come into our lives and consciousness and become more-or-less ubiquitous: the computer, along with the computer screen, computer-based video games, and digital imaging and digital processing of text, images, and sound. Computers were invented as early as the mid 1940s but came to full prominence with the development of the digital personal computer in the 1970s and ’80s and began their rapid ascent to today’s prominence in the 1990s. As before, an enormous industry has arisen based on this technology.
Computers and computer screens are actually a hybrid that combines visual-and word-based cultures. The computer uses a screen, and in that it is like television. Although much of computer use is for computer games and other visual applications, computers are even more widely used for linguistic-centered applications: word processing, spreadsheets, databases, and so on. Computers are also used for presentation and processing of images — both still pictures and moving pictures — and sounds. The Internet is an especially interesting hybrid case. It is highly visual and yet requires literacy and word skill for use.
Perhaps, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, computer culture has finally brought a convergence of the written and visual cultures, meaning a convergence of the left-and right-brain aspects of human beings, (or of the masculine and the feminine). It also means that education in both literary skills and something for which we have no adequate words — visual or screen-using and image-using skills — is where we must go for the future.
Digital Imaging and Visual Culture
An extremely important recent development, beginning near the end of the twentieth century but coming into flowering and prominence in the twenty-first, is digital imaging. Most photographers now use digital cameras — cameras that process the image as a digitized computer file instead of producing the image on film — and many cell phones now have digital imaging capability. Most picture agencies now use digital images, and most publications have gone digital in that they use digital images and digital files even for text (words). All Internet pages, including text, images, sounds, and whatever else occurs on the page, are made up of digital files.
Digital imaging further frees visual culture from the limitations of film, film processing, and photochemical-based printmaking. Manipulation of images — either to clean them up and make the images sharper and better-colored and better presented, or to distort them and make pictures that misrepresent what happened or occurred in the “real world” in front of the camera — is now so easily done that it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell whether a picture has or has not been digitally manipulated, and whether is “true” or a lie. Photojournalism, since it is often tied closely to political interests and passions, is especially susceptible to having ideologues distort digital images in order to gain an advantage for one side in a war or other political conflict. The making and editing of films and movies — whether for entertainment or educational purposes — has now become a digitized process also, making applications possible that could not be achieved by older film-based methods, and making the entire process much faster, much less expensive, and much more adaptable.
Digital imaging has become so prevalent that older, film and chemical photographic processes are becoming obsolete, and companies and businesses that became large and powerful and successful based on that older technology, such as Eastman Kodak, have had to adapt to the new technology or fail.
Digital imaging and digital technology make creating and disseminating images even easier than it was before. Now even very young children are creating digital images on computers and using digital cameras or cellphones that permit making digital photos or videos. Furthermore, digital images can be sent throughout the world in seconds or less using computer technology and the Internet. People can view those digital images either on screen or print them out with present-day digital-based computer printers. Digital imaging has further expanded the role, power, ubiquity, and impact of visual culture to almost all of the people of the entire world.
- Gladwell, Malcolm. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Back Bay Books. 2007.
- Jewison, Norman. “Chess With Sex,” Sight and Sound (May 1999): 58—59. Logan, Robert. The Alphabet Effect. St Martins Pr. 1987.
- McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1964. With a new Introd. by Lewis H. Lapham, Cambridge, MA & London: MIT Press, 1994.
- Newhall, Beaumont. The History of Photography. Museum of Modern Art, New York, distributed by New York Graphic Society Books, Vintage/Ebury. 1982.
- Shlain, Leonard. The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image. New York: Viking, 1998.
Originally published by New World Encyclopedia, 11.23.2009, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.