The best books to begin the study of visual culture

Why am I passionate about this?

I'm currently an Honorary Fellow in Social Theory at the University of York, U.K. For more than five decades I've been working to promote more reflexive perspectives in philosophy, sociology, social theory, and sociological research. I've written and edited many books in the field of social theory with particular emphasis upon questions of culture and critical research in the expanding field of visual culture. Recent projects include Interpreting Visual Culture (with Ian Heywood), The Handbook of Visual Culture, and an edited multi-volume textbook to be published by Bloomsbury, The Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Visual Culture. The passion to understand the thought and visual culture of both the ancient and modern world continues to inform my work. 

I wrote...

Dictionary of Visual Discourse: A Dialectical Lexicon of Terms

By Barry Sandywell,

Book cover of Dictionary of Visual Discourse: A Dialectical Lexicon of Terms

What is my book about?

Visual culture studies today form a vast field of multidisciplinary research and transdisciplinary scholarly inquiry. My Dictionary of Visual Discourse explores the origins, foundations, and motivations of theoretical and academic discourse that currently organizes this field. Unlike previous attempts to explore visual culture as a taken-for-granted set of `objects’ this work explores the terms and language games that have shaped the history and structure of visuality today. Being a `reflexive’ enterprise the work explores the underling philosophical frameworks which underpin the field of visual thinking and research. One major finding of the work is the deep extent to which thinking in the arts, sciences, and humanities have been determined by Eurocentric interpretations of the visual. This ocular-centered and over-theorized tradition is critiqued in many different forms throughout the Dictionary.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of Illuminations

Barry Sandywell Why did I love this book?

Like most of Benjamin’s essays and books, "The Work of Art" essay is a dialectical study of the material conditions of the possibility of the work of art in the context of the conditions of modern reproduction techniques. Benjamin delineates a visual phenomenology of the essential features of the traditional artwork (its singularity in time and place, its disengagement from mundane experience, its provocation of thought and reflection, and its local `auratic’ presence). This frames the background to the question of the fate of art in an era where the singular work of art can be replicated and endlessly reproduced through technological means.

The artwork achieves a massive expansion in terms of audience reception and interpretation, but it is also stripped of its `aura’ and transgressive 'presence’. This analysis allows Benjamin to explore the impact of modernity upon structures of experience as a dialectical `loop’ that circles back upon the changing dynamic of visual life. It is this essay that uniquely focused cultural studies upon material and technological questions and, indirectly, provoked some of the most influential studies of visual modernity, among these Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects, Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, and Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation

By Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt (editor), Henry Zohn (translator)

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Illuminations as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Essays and reflections from one of the twentieth century’s most original cultural critics, with an introduction by Hannah Arendt.
Walter Benjamin was an icon of criticism, renowned for his insight on art, literature, and philosophy. This volume includes his views on Kafka, with whom he felt a close personal affinity; his studies on Baudelaire and Proust; and his essays on Leskov and Brecht’s epic theater. Illuminations also includes his penetrating study “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” an enlightening discussion of translation as a literary mode; and his theses on the philosophy of history.
Hannah Arendt…

Book cover of Ways of Seeing

Barry Sandywell Why did I love this book?

In one sense Berger’s work is a further exploration of many of Benjamin’s ideas on the social functions of art and visual imagery. Berger is even more emphatic in underlining the changing social (and economic) imperatives that have created particular genres of art. In this book the main emphasis is Eurocentric as Berger weaves his story of the social logics of images into an account of the class and gendered character of the art world and, more particularly, of the world of paintings.

As a Marxist reading of the tradition Ways of Seeing emphasizes social class and dominant class relations as a formative way in which the visual world has been constructed. But he is `culturalist’ enough to stress the relative autonomy of the visual and cultural formations and how the conventions governing artworks and aesthetic interpretation have changed historically. Unusual in the theory of visual culture during the 1960s Berger has lengthy discussions of the role of gendered images of the human body, particularly the female nude. All of this pointed toward a much more reflexive hermeneutic open to diverse readings of the tradition and the continual `openness’ of the image and image cultures.

By John Berger,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked Ways of Seeing as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.""But there is also another sense in which seeing comes before words. It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but word can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled."John Berger's "Ways of Seeing" is one of the most stimulating and the most influential books on art in any language. First published in 1972, it was based on the BBC television series about…

Book cover of Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography

Barry Sandywell Why did I love this book?

In contrast to John Berger’s Marxist aesthetic, Barthes’s approach to visual experience and photographic images draws upon the tradition of semiotics and, to a degree, postmodern theories of text and intertextuality. Barthes leads his reader into the codes and conventions of the image. How images signify is thus made a central topic that provokes self-reflection and reflexive challenges to conventional image analysis. Where Berger’s work is expository and analytic, Barthes's book is exploratory and novelistic (Barthes would have his reader approach the work as a kind of intertextual fiction). As the title of the work suggests, this is Barthes at his most personal and reflective. His fascination remains with the photographic image which is presented as one of the defining aesthetic objects of modernity. But the act of photography is now itself complex, mediated, and open to a range of concrete experiential impulses.

Here the viewer of the photograph is central to image reception and this `viewing gaze’ is also historically grounded and phenomenologically complex. Photographs are frozen moments charged with emotion and affective resonances. This kind of complexity is revealed in Barthes’s own reflections on the intimate significance of personal photographs. The image of his own recently deceased mother occupies a central part of the text. Barthes leaves the reader considering how a scratched image can be a consolatory object in the face of indescribable grief.

By Roland Barthes, Richard Howard (translator),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Camera Lucida as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This personal, wide-ranging, and contemplative volume--and the last book Barthes published--finds the author applying his influential perceptiveness and associative insight to the subject of photography. To this end, several black-and-white photos (by the likes of Avedon, Clifford, Hine, Mapplethorpe, Nadar, Van Der Zee, and so forth) are reprinted throughout the text.

Book cover of On Photography

Barry Sandywell Why did I love this book?

On Photography is Sontag’s attempt to develop the thought of Barthes, Benjamin, and others and apply the resultant perspective to the critical understanding of the fundamental role of photography in modern life. The book is constructed as a series of interconnected essays, each of which explores the moral and dialectical character of photographic interventions. Photography embodies the moral ambiguity of human activity: the camera claims to deliver truth but is essentially selective and partial; photography reveals and conceals the real; the photograph is an artificial mode of representation but claims to provide a `picture’ of life that can only be captured through the camera.

This ambiguous ontology of the image impacts upon both the act of image-making and the interpretive task of reading and understanding the image. With modern photography the viewer is constituted in a dual movement of separation (and alienation) and connectivity (and communality). Photographic engagement constitutes, so to speak, the renewal of fascination and, perhaps, `aura’ in the mass-produced photographic image. Dealing with the analogue camera, Sontag stood on the lintel between the world of art and journalistic media and the revolutionary development of mass-produced digital imagery.

The connections she identified prefigure questions that are now being explicitly addressed by contemporary visual theorizing: the global character of contemporary image-making, the extreme gendered nature of photography and alternative practice, the Eurocentric logic of image-worlds, the capitalist exploitation and commercialization of visual culture, the morality of 'stolen’ photographic images and archives, and so on. Despite these historical and theoretical limitations her essays retain their relevance in the current global transformation of image-mediated reality construction. 

By Susan Sontag,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked On Photography as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'The most original and illuminating study of the subject.' The New Yorker

Photographs are everywhere. From high art to family albums to legal evidence, they capture and document the world around us. And whether we use them to expose, reveal or remember, they hold an enduring power.

In this essential and revelatory volume, Susan Sontag confronts important questions surrounding the power dynamics between photographer and subject, the blurred boundary between lived events and recreated images, and the desires that lead us to record our lives.

'Complex and contradictory... one of America's greatest public intellectuals' Observer

'Susan Sontag offers enough food…

Book cover of Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the 19th Century

Barry Sandywell Why did I love this book?

Crary’s work provides a theoretical and empirically informed synthesis of the work of theorists like Berger, Debord, Baudrillard, Barthes, and Sontag. Like these earlier writers, the technological transformations of visual culture are at the heart of the social transformations of the modern world. To understand modernity is thus first to make sense of its visual logics, procedures, and practices. This general argument allowed the author to enter the granular historical details of how seeing and 'observation’ have become essential to the concerns of modern life. What he calls 'techniques of the observer’ are in fact the core sensory apparatus that has helped to shape the institutions and practices of modern life.

What can be visualized is correlated to the technical affordances and historical development of representational practices. This makes technologies of the visual central to social analysis. Some of the most powerful drivers of modern life are thus linked to the origin of the telegraph, photography, radio, television, the moving image, computation, the internet, and new social media. The strengths of Crary’s work lie in this integration of theoretical perspective with detailed investigations of some of the seminal technical innovations in observation and representation in the late nineteenth century. This is the period that created new 'subjects’ ('subjectivities’ and 'temporalities’), novel kinds of spectatorship, new forms of societal order, new disciplinary systems, and new ways of thinking about self and society.

The radical implication of Crary’s research is that if we are to continue this kind of critical work we must move to a radical political economy of the image that is now global and digitally transformed through the social media of the internet and corporate media platforms. The changes and problematics that shaped modernity in the nineteenth century have now entered the age of the post-modern and hyperreal world of global capitalism. The next phase of visual modernity lies in the impact of AI technology and robotic machine production, analysis, and dissemination of images. Some of these themes have now been addressed in his Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture (1999), 24/17. Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (2014) and Scorched Earth. Beyond the Digital Age to a Post-Capitalist World (2022).

By Jonathan Crary,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Techniques of the Observer as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Jonathan Crary's Techniques of the Observer provides a dramatically new perspective on the visual culture of the nineteenth century, reassessing problems of both visual modernism and social modernity. This analysis of the historical formation of the observer is a compelling account of the prehistory of the society of the spectacle.

In Techniques of the Observer Jonathan Crary provides a dramatically new perspective on the visual culture of the nineteenth century, reassessing problems of both visual modernism and social modernity.

Inverting conventional approaches, Crary considers the problem of visuality not through the study of art works and images, but by analyzing…

You might also like...

The Wonder of Jazz: Music that changed the world

By Sammy Stein,

Book cover of The Wonder of Jazz: Music that changed the world

Sammy Stein Author Of Fabulous Female Musicians

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I've been passionate about music for almost my entire life. Jazz music in particular speaks to me but not just jazz. I love music, full stop. I really discovered jazz when I attended a jazz club workshop in London and there, I had to join in or leave. I chose to join in and since then I have never looked back. I was introduced to more jazz musicians and now write about music for three major columns as well as Readers’ Digest. My Women In Jazz book won several awards. I have been International Editor for the Jazz Journalist Association and had my work commissioned by the Library of Congress. 

Sammy's book list on female musicians

What is my book about?

With input from over 100 musicians, the book discusses what exactly jazz is, and how you know you are listening to it. Do we truly know when and how jazz first originated? Who was the first jazz musician? How does jazz link to other genres? What about women in jazz? And writers and journalists? Do reviews make any difference? 

This book is a deep dive into jazz's history, impact, and future. It discusses jazz's social, cultural, and political influence and reveals areas where jazz has had an impact we may not even realize.Its influences on hip hop, the connection to…

The Wonder of Jazz: Music that changed the world

By Sammy Stein,

What is this book about?

This book is very different from other, more general jazz books. It is packed with information, advice, well researched and includes experiences from jazz musicians who gleefully add their rich voices to Sammy's in-depth research. All genres, from hard bop to be-bop, vocal jazz, must instrumental, free jazz, and everything between is covered in one way or another and given Sammy's forensic eye. There is social commentary and discussions of careers in jazz music. The musical background of those in the book is rich and diverse.
Critics comment:
"This new book by Sammy Stein is a highly individual take on…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in fine art photography, art, and visual perception?

11,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about fine art photography, art, and visual perception.

Fine Art Photography Explore 22 books about fine art photography
Art Explore 888 books about art
Visual Perception Explore 18 books about visual perception