During a Q&A at a conference at Syracuse University several years ago, the ever-astute Angela Ray asked me a question that crystallized the main challenges I was facing in the project that eventually became Making Photography Matter. "So is it fair to say that what you're doing," she asked from the back of the room, "is trying to write a history of viewership?"
Whoa. Yes, I said. I hadn't had the words for it before, but yes. That's exactly what I was trying to do. That question, and the years of thinking and writing that followed, helped me recognize that the project I'd rather accidentally bumped into was implicitly driven by a key methodological challenge: How do we understand how historical viewers viewed, when they aren't around to ask?
In Making Photography Matter I use my training as a rhetoric scholar to write a rhetorical history of viewership through close study of newspaper and magazine articles, letters to the editor, trial testimony, books, speeches, and comments left at a photography exhibit. I argue there that "it is within these documented moments of engagement that we may come to understand the complex and historically specific relationships that develop between viewers and photographs, and between viewers and their public world."
But I often get asked this question: what about contemporary viewers? How might one go about studying how today's viewers view? One approach certainly could mirror the history I write in Making Photography Matter by analyzing the rhetorical texts produced by viewers. But when you have living witnesses, other approaches become available. You could simply ask them what they think about what they see, as Catherine Lutz and Jane Collins did in their classic Reading National Geographic. Or you could observe them, as Thomas Struth has done with his compelling photographs of museum visitors. Recently I've begun connecting with colleagues on my campus doing eyetracking research, projects in which researchers measure eye movements in order to understand better how viewers visually consume an image or a text. On my campus right now, researchers are using eyetracking to understand second-language acquisition, how the brain makes meaning, how students learn physics, and how people drive and fly planes. Closer to my home field of Communication, researchers are starting to do this work with contemporary photojournalism. This recent project funded by the National Press Photographers Association combines eyetracking research with surveys and interviews to understand what viewers think makes a compelling news photograph. I've often thought it would be fun to see what eyetracking reveals about how contemporary viewers consume historical photographs: how do our eyes make sense of images whose contexts of production and circulation may be removed from us by time and place?
Making Photography Matter will be published in hardcover and available for download as an e-book after May 15. In the meantime, you can check out a 15-page preview of the e-book here.
Research news, commentary on visual politics, and a few old blog posts given new life.