Since antiquity, vision has been both celebrated and distrusted as a source of knowledge. Vision is at once the oldest and newest means of communication and, arguably, one of the most crucial for twenty-first century research and scholarship. The global circulation of images and the impact of new technologies have posed crucial new questions for researchers who are investigating the historical, cultural, and social power of both vision and images.

“Visual Culture” can be defined by its objects of study which are considered modes of image-making defining visual experiences in specific historical contexts. Visual culture has a particular investment in vision as an historically and culturally specific experience, mediated by new technologies and the individual and social formations that they enable. Putting visual objects, image-production and reception at the center of inquiry has allowed scholars to re-organize historical periodization, broaden the disciplinary frameworks of interpretation beyond the history of art (including the “new art history”) and film studies, and identify a new field of interdisciplinary scholarly practice.


  • Sinem Arcak Casale

    University of Minnesota / Twin Cities, Art history

    Islamic Art in War and Peace: Ottoman-Safavid Cultural Exchange in the 16th and 17th Centuries
    Between the 16th and 18th centuries, the Shiite Safavids of Iran and the Sunni Ottomans of Turkey – two of the greatest Islamic empires in history – developed a complex relationship in which tenuous peace alternated with bloody conflict, often with dizzying speed. At times, both sought to expand their borders at the other’s expense, provoking bloody conflicts over territory and political influence. At other times, long periods of peaceful relations characterized by mutually profitable exchange were the norm. Most scholarship to date on Ottoman-Safavid relations has been surprisingly one-dimensional, simply documenting territories lost and won in what is portrayed as an ongoing series of conflicts. My project, in contrast, will be the first systematic investigation of the Ottoman-Safavid relationship from the perspective of cultural history, through a study of the exchanged objects that formed part of the visual cultures of each empire. These objects—ranging from books and carpets to garments and even falcons—enriched the visual culture of each court, and led to the formulation of two distinctive artistic canons with a lasting legacy in the artistic traditions of each empire. Taking war and diplomacy as media of cultural dialogue, I ask how, through the movement of objects, each ruler’s military might and his political image were shaped, and an unmistakably distinctive artistic canon for both the Ottomans and Safavids was concurrently constructed.
  • Emerson Kent Bowyer

    Columbia University, Art History

    Perceiving the Sculptural in Nineteenth-Century France and England
    During the nineteenth century, major technological advances provided the possibility of scale-free reproduction of sculptural forms, and their dissemination to an increasingly broad audience. This dissertation will address the largely neglected problem of sculpture in the age of its mechanical reproducibility, focusing on artistic and industrial production in England and France throughout this period. Reproduction fundamentally altered the very notion of the sculptural, radically transforming the traditional importance of "sitedness" and "spatiality", as well as altering conceptions of authorial "touch" and ownership. As I will show, the manufacture and consumption of sculpture at this time necessarily involved a complex mediation between materiality and the phantasmagoric. The dissertation will be comprised of a series of interrelated case studies. These will explore the key concepts emerging from the operation of various sculptural technologies - reduction, fragmentation, multiplication, and impression (exemplary concerns of modernity). I am particularly interested in pursuing the impact of newly-introduced mechanical devices (and their sculptural products) on other visual media - painting, prints, and photography. Hybrid technologies such as "photosculpture" will be closely examined, and the ways in which certain artists (Gérôme, Cezanne) staged themselves in response to modern techniques of sculptural production.
  • Ramzi Fawaz

    George Washington University, American Studies

    Heroic Measures: A New Cultural History of the American Superhero, 1955-2006
    My project, "Heroic Measures," seeks to provide a new cultural history of the American superhero, investigating the ways that superhero comic books have appropriated, magnified, and reinterpreted American socio-political life across the latter half of the 20th century. Veering away from traditional formalistic approaches, this work employs visual and cultural studies scholarship to illuminate how superhero comics have been vehicles for critiquing American cultural anxieties in the post-WWII period, particularly over the nuclear family, teen culture, the social geographies of suburbia, consumer society, and the threat of atomic annihilation. Between 1955-2006, comic book superheroes absorbed these concerns in tales of world-shattering adventure, providing visual mappings of America’s rapidly changing social realities. Superhero comics, then, not only provided American culture with politically relevant narratives of the fantastic but also produced a counter-discourse to a conservative rhetoric that wove these concerns together in terms of an impending cultural apocalypse. This study intends to unpack the counter-narratives that superheroes provided American culture during the tumultuous years leading up to the turn of the millennium, showing how one of the most widely read and intellectually ignored mediums of the 20th century visually theorized a new politics of liberation under the mantle of superhuman solidarity.
  • Olivia Gruber Florek

    Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, Art History

    Representations of Beauty: Empress Elisabeth and the Visual Culture of Femininity in Austria-Hungary 1848-1914
    In my dissertation I will employ the figure of Empress Elisabeth of Austria (1837-1898) as the core case study to examine shifting ideas in the Austro-Hungarian Empire about femininity, beauty, and representations of women from 1848 through 1914. While dominant representations of women during the Biedermeier period (1815-1848) emphasized domesticity and bourgeois values, by the outbreak of the first World War Austro-Hungarian artists depicted certain women as femmes fatales: hypersexualized and deliberately wielding aggressive power. This transformation is embodied in the figure of Elisabeth, who as a historical entity interrogated, exploited, and even subverted the changes of the period to develop her own visual culture of femininity. Elisabeth is situated at the intersection of numerous intellectual currents and an examination of her representations will provide insight into nineteenth century cultures of beauty, celebrity, nationalism and the development of psychoanalysis. By analyzing portrayals of Elisabeth in paintings, photographs, prints, and the popular press and comparing these works with contemporary images of Austro-Hungarian women as well as other European royalty, I will develop a greater understanding of how the visual culture of femininity changed in late nineteenth century Europe.
  • Brian Jacobson

    University of Southern California, Critical Studies - School of Cinematic Arts

    Making Modern Space: Architecture, Technology, and Early Cinema
    Thomas Edison’s Black Maria studio is a compelling material embodiment of the relationship between cinema, architecture, and technology. The Black Maria was not only the first specially designed motion picture studio; it is also an artifact of the sweeping transformations to the built environment that historians of technology have described as the most important technological revolution in history. Edison’s central role in that revolution is indicative of the ways that moving-image media have, from their origins, developed in relation to a range of diverse technologies. This project will use Edison, the Black Maria, and early production spaces such as George Méliès’s glass and iron studio as starting points for examining the role of moving-image media in the construction of the built environment, the production of artificial spaces, and more general technological change. Examples from early cinema will be combined with technologies including rear projection, chroma key (“bluescreen”), and computer-generated imagery to consider both the architectural spaces of image making and their technologically produced virtual corollaries. By tracing the historical coincidence of cinematic, architectural, and technological practices, the project will contribute to our understanding of the ways that visual culture is both embedded in and constitutive of the human-built world.
  • Aynne Kokas

    University of California / Los Angeles, Asian Languages and Cultures

    The Space of Contemporary Shanghai and the Global Cinematic Constructions of the City as a Place
    A hyperbolic and evocative vision, “Shanghai” as a space holds a dramatic allure akin to the sublime and sinful associations with “Hollywood.” Because of Shanghai’s hallowed history as the birthplace of Chinese cinema, it is no surprise that the city has returned to prominence as a global filmmaking space in the period immediately preceding and following Mainland China’s WTO accession in 2000. However, as the economic borders of cinematic production in China become increasingly fluid, the borders of cultural classification have become ever more rigid. In my project, I will explore how the boundaries between Mainland China and the West are alternatively blurred and fixed by the filmmaking process. Analysis will trace the textual, cultural and economic factors leading to the production of films from multiple national points of origin, yet ending in production in Shanghai, the urban nexus of Mainland China’s financial growth, from the period of 1997 to 2007.
  • Erin Lambert

    University of Wisconsin / Madison, History

    Hearing the Image, Seeing the Word: Illustrated Hymns in the German Reformation
    While the Reformation is widely recognized as a period of religious change, it was equally a process of cultural negotiation. Through an examination of illustrated hymnals and songsheets, my dissertation will consider the roles of vision and hearing in sixteenth-century Germany. Ranging from inexpensive broadsides to luxury editions, illustrated songs reached every level of society as their texts spread reform through well-known melodies. At the same time, the woodcuts that fill the illustrated hymnal’s pages reveal relationships between picture and text. As it focuses on the production, circulation, and interpretation of musical and visual culture, this project seeks to understand their intersection in sixteenth-century religious identity. Based on the collections of Wolfenbüttel’s Herzog August Bibliothek and the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, my research thus explores the relationship between sight, sound, and faith on the pages of illustrated hymnals and in the performances of early modern Europeans.
  • Toby Lee

    Harvard University, Anthropology (with Visual and Environmental Studies)

    The Social Life of Cinema: An Ethnographic Study of the Thessaloniki International Film Festival
    In this dissertation, I will turn an interdisciplinary eye to cinema and its institutions in Greece and the Balkans, specifically focusing on the city of Thessaloniki and its annual International Film Festival. In an ethnographic study of the festival, I will explore how it functions both as a cultural institution and as an event connected to larger social, industrial and spatial contexts. Combining this anthropological approach with a more philosophical consideration of film/video and close readings of particular films, I will examine the ways in which the specificities of the cinematic experience and of the moving image as medium are implicated in the festival's functioning as institution and event. Through this twofold approach, I will look at the dynamic relationship between festival and city and examine the ways in which the festival mediates between Thessaloniki and other Greek cities, particularly Athens; between the city and the state; and finally, between constructions of national, regional (Balkan), and European identity. This work will build on and contribute to the anthropology of Greece and the Balkans, the anthropology of cinema, and the dialogue between the arts, social sciences, and film/visual studies.
  • Ryan M. Linkof

    University of Southern California, History

    Framing the News: The British Tabloid and the Spectacle of the Everyday
    The tabloid is a peculiarly British institution. Fleet Street’s sensational journalism and aggressive paparazzi have long set the standard for developments in print media across the Western world. Beginning in the late nineteenth-century, the British tabloid began to clutter sidewalk kiosks, newsstands and train stations. While “traditional” news did not disappear with the coming of the radically simplified format, it was rapidly becoming a thing of the past. In an effort to increase readership amongst women and the working-classes, Britain’s news moguls peddled eye-catching all-photography formats and female-oriented pictorial spreads. The tabloid – exemplified by papers like Daily Mail and Daily Mirror – siphoned readers away from traditional news formats to become the dominant source of news and entertainment by the end of the 1930s. My project will treat the tabloid as a crucial cultural phenomenon, an integral part of the fabric of everyday life for all sections of British society – whether they liked it or not. I will focus, more specifically, on the place of celebrity in British culture, emphasizing the role of gender and class in representations of celebrity, particularly with regard to the development of the international cult of the British royal family. I will also suggest that homosexual men occupy a prominent place in the world of British journalistic celebrity of the 1920s and 1930s, disproportionately represented as photographers, writers, society columnists and editors of “women’s pages.”
  • Alexander Igor Olson

    University of Michigan, American Culture

    Ruin and Representation: Bohemians in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1906
    Using visual and written descriptions of the 1906 Earthquake as a starting point, this project will examine the networks of circulation that connected San Francisco bohemians to wider publics. As a multidisciplinary object of analysis, bohemianism cuts against the tendency in visual culture studies to focus exclusively on a single medium such as photography. Similarly, as a phenomenon linking cosmopolitan enclaves around the world, it highlights intellectual relationships sometimes lost in urban history. Recent work on Greenwich Village, for example, tends to privilege New York as the originating site of American modernism. Yet the San Francisco Bay Area also had a thriving bohemian community, one that included artists and intellectuals who arrived directly from the Left Bank in Paris. While San Francisco’s Bohemian Club was not exactly bohemian, excluding some leading artists and writers because they were women, the cultural production of the region was far more variegated than a single institution. By taking an expansive view of what counts as visual representation, this project can examine the reconstruction of the city’s built environment and look for examples of the interpenetration of scientific, political, commercial, and literary imagery.
  • Traci Reeves

    University of Chicago, Cinema and Media Studies

    Black Female Images of Embodiment: Towards A New Theory of Representation and Phenomenological Spectatorship
    Drawing on the scholarship of film feminist scholars Vivian Sobchack and Laura Marks and their work on phenomenological models of spectatorship theory, I wish to complicate such theories in an analysis of black female representations in mainstream Hollywood cinema. I wish to trace how transnational black religious practices and the places of diaspora in which they occur are represented in an American film imagination as a particular mode of representation which I term black female-as-medium. Black cultural practices that feature females as vessels of metaphysical embodiment experiences such as those of Haitian Voodoo rites of possession, “holy ghost” worship experiences in the black church and faith healing practices in South Africa offer an important critique and gives new perspective to feminist theories of affect in film representation and experience. Ultimately, I wish to assess how this new theory helps to dismantle the outdated discourse of stereotype altogether and helps to re-inscribe current theories of the body beyond merely offering up a gendered and racialized notion of the body, but also by raising the question: How do cinematic imaginings of black female experiences with the unembodied Other (spirits, ancestors, and ghosts) help to inform current models of embodied film spectatorship?
  • Victoria J. Watts

    George Mason University, Cultural Studies

    Patterns of embodiment: dance notation and visual culture
    Labanotation [LN] and Benesh Movement Notation [BMN] are systems for the graphical recording of human movement: they both have undergone substantial changes in their appearance over the course of the 20th century. This study plans to document these changes, and to subsequently consider what prompted developments in the visual perception the systems encode. I contend that these notation systems not only record the movement under observation, but also act as a trace of the way in which movement is seen. Further, given that the stylized movement of dancers can be seen as existing on a continuum with more quotidien movement practices, I argue that these changes in the visual register of the notation systems not only provide insight into shifting patterns of representation in dance but also into changing modes of embodied subjectivity in western culture last century. For example, conventions for describing torso movement have changed considerably since Labanotation was developed. While these developments are presented within the LN community as amendments or improvements to the existing theory, it is plausible to suggest that theoretical changes are made in response to shifting patterns of embodiment.