Richard Howells: Visual Culture

Reading Visual Culture created an interesting double challenge at this stage. Unlike the previous essays Howells spends a lot of it going over the history of photography before explaining his point. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it creates a lapses in engagement before its purpose becomes apparent. He explains the inclusion saying “With the proliferation of cameras and consumer photography today, it may be difficult to imagine a world without photographs.” (Howells, 2011, p.188). This is undoubtedly true and it is hard to contextualise the reactions to imagery over 100 years ago. 

Howells takes the time to utilise history to case study how photography was regarded as document and resisted as art. During his example of Rowing Home the Shoof-Stuff (1886) I found myself in agreement with his critique of the theory by Roger Scruton that ‘If one finds a photograph beautiful, it is because one finds something beautiful in its subject.’ That does the operator a disservice which Howells addresses saying “The eventual photograph, then, is the result of creative choices that began at the very setting up of the tripod.” (Howells, 2011, p.193). During this acknowledges the photographers role in composing the image, the space-time it is occupying and even in postproduction. Howells even acknowledges the validity of modern technology stating “the vital ingredients of both technical and creative choice apply to both traditional and digital techniques.” (Howells, 2011, p.193).

I think what helps so much reading Visual Culture is that Howells is one of the few writers on photography who is articulate about photography as both art and document. His example of Paul Strand exploring abstraction being suitable under certain conditions but not necessarily under a strict brief or technical survey was insightful. It shows a dualism in photography to both record for need and explore out of curiosity. Howells corroborates this saying that the the dualism is greater than the sum of its parts, describing it as “a meeting between the actual and the imaginary, where each adds to, rather than detracts from, the power of the other.” (Howells, 2011, p.200).

Specifically he sites the importance of the most important component of how I photograph: composition. Which are not only about aesthetics but also an awareness of space and time that, if articulated, enriches the understanding of content as well as visual appeal. “…the emotional elements of design that carry the meaning of a work of art, and that this meaning is communicated not so much by content as by form.” (Howells, 2011, p.193). I would go as far as to propose composition is the grammar of vision.

As such I wouldn’t regard photography as the language of reality. Photography as has already been said is a mechanical process operated by the human hand. We will always be complicit in its attempts to decipher what is real. Howells concludes more eloquently saying “…it is important that we learn to value it as a reflection of our identity and cultural values.” (Howells, 2011, p.202). Perhaps it is better to look at ourselves and less at the camera.


Howells, R. (2011). Visual Culture. Cambridge: Polity Press.