Embedded Pictures, and Writing About Same

This post is addressed to my students in Postwar American Visual Culture class. They are working on web-delivered exhibition projects across a variety of subjects. Within two weeks, they should be up and available for review. When they go up I'll provide a link to them. 

Gang: I am reviewing your exhibition drafts. Things are looking good--these are going to be interesting projects. Your interpretive writing on the artifacts is often strong and useful.

But I have been struck by how unmoored some of this writing can become. Unmoored, that is, from the material facts of the object. I know that we live in a postmodern moment, and a constant flutter of images is part of our experience. The instantaneous access to Google search results can make it seem as if images live in some metadata ether, forever hovering, at the ready, popping into view whenever and wherever we wish to view them.

With no assist from any search engine, the study of art history can in its way create the impression that images exist for primary purposes of admiration and intellectual decodification.

To review: the objects we have been studying were all created for particular cultural contexts. An animated television advertisement from 1955 was produced for a client (say, General Motors) under the direction of an advertising agency (say, Leo Burnett) by an animation house (say, UPA). The ad was then broadcast during a particular time slot to reach particular viewers, who viewed the ad in their homes.

Likewise, a fiction illustration that ran in the Ladies Home Journal appeared in a sequence of fiction story opening spreads, typically four or five, that referred a reader to the resumption of each story in the back of the magazine. The content of the story, the placement of the story, the juxtaposition of the text with particular advertisements in the second portion of the story, the domestic context of the reader, the spatial environment of reception (i.e., the new suburban landscape) all of these aspects of the artifact are relevant. Such images were commissioned by art directors, who contacted the illustrator or his representative to secure the slot in his schedule. What’s more, the particular look of many such images were determined to a significant degree by the technologies of photography and projection (the latter referring to the ubiquitous but always concealed lucidograph, a projection device used for tracing purposes).

We cannot credibly look at such things without addressing the material facts of production, the cultural claims of advertisers, the market contexts faced by publishers, and the choices available to consumers. The answers, moreover, are never static; the shifting circumstances of commercial culture are always tricky for all participants in such markets.

Bottom line, we must confront the embedded reality of the image itself, both physically and culturally. 

Hence, your citations for every object you present must be complete. If a film, cite the studio, the director, and if relevant, the production designer. If a magazine illustration, cite the issue, the illustrator, the author, and if available the page number (and ideally what preceded and followed the spread).

Even more fundamentally, here is the rule: describe first, interpret second. Without description, your interpretations run the risk of analytical rootlessness. They float off, referring to themselves, calling into question their own relevance. Tie your interpretations to observable evidence.

See you later today!

Camel Cigarette adverstisement, Collier’s, February 29, 1936. In addition to selling cigarettes, the ad provides cross-promotion for Camel Caravan, a variety show sponsored by Camel that ran on CBS Radio beginning in 1933, and survived in revised forms until 1954.