In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Visual Rhetoric

  • Introduction
  • The Fundamentals
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Methods for Analyzing Visual Rhetoric
  • Visual Arguments
  • Photography
  • Political Cartoons
  • TV, Film, and Other Moving Images
  • Image Events
  • Murals, Memorials, Museums, and Other Spaces
  • Bodies

Communication Visual Rhetoric
Zazil Reyes García
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 July 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0258


Visual rhetoric is a relatively new area of study that emerged in the late 1900s when rhetoric scholars recognized the increasing centrality of the visual in contemporary culture. There is no consensus on the definition of visual rhetoric; different scholars use the term in different ways. Broadly, it refers to the analysis of the communicative and persuasive power of visual artifacts. These artifacts range from two-dimensional images such as photographs, political cartoons, and maps to moving images in film or television. They also include three-dimensional objects like murals, as well as places, spaces, and bodies. Although much scholarship on visual rhetoric focuses on the communicative aspects of visuals, there are also a number of studies that examine cultural practices of looking and interpreting. While visual rhetoric borrows from various methods and disciplines that also concern themselves with the visual, such as semiotics, aesthetics, and cultural studies, this bibliography focuses narrowly on the branch of study that emerged from US rhetorical studies within the discipline of communication in the 1970s. This bibliography begins with pieces that hail from other disciplines in order to recognize their influence in thinking about the rhetorical dimensions of visuals. From there, it moves to suggest general overviews and anthologies of this area of study, as well as some methods to evaluate images. Finally, the bibliography focuses on different forms of visual rhetoric that range from photographs to bodies.

The Fundamentals

This section includes influential pieces from different disciplines that are concerned with images and meaning-making, such as semiotics (Barthes 1977), art criticism (Berger 1990), communication (Messaris 1997), and English (Mitchell 1994). They offer valuable starting points for thinking about how images work rhetorically and have been widely cited by visual rhetoric scholars. The section also includes Foss 2005, which describes a theory of visual rhetoric. As mentioned in the Introduction of this bibliography, there is not a definite theory of visual rhetoric, but Foss’s piece is of central importance and provides a necessary base for those interested in this area of study.

  • Barthes, R. 1977. Image, music, text. New York: Hill and Wang.

    Collection of essays by the French semiotician and philosopher Roland Barthes, originally published in the 1960s and 1970s. Includes “Rhetoric of the Image,” “The Photographic Message,” and “The Third Meaning.” These essays analyze images from advertising, press photography, and film, and consider how they work to construct meaning. Barthes argues that images are never divorced from signification by showing how denotation and connotation overlap with each other.

  • Berger, J. 1990. Ways of seeing. New York: Penguin Books.

    Originally published in 1972, this piece is a seminal work of art criticism. Berger explores relationships between images, language, experience, and ideology through his analyses of oil paintings and advertisement. This short piece is concerned with power dynamics between observer and observed, and the underlying politics of Western art. It is based on the 1972 BBC series by the same name.

  • Foss, S. 2005. Theory of visual rhetoric. In Handbook of visual communication: Theory, methods, and media. Edited by K. Smith, S. Moriarty, J. Barbatsis, and K. Kennedy, 141–152. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

    Delineates visual rhetoric as an area of study within rhetoric and communication. Foss traces its origins as a field of study and identifies two meanings for the term: visual rhetoric as a communicative artifact, and as a theoretical perspective. Foss argues for the need to understand how images in contemporary culture work rhetorically. This piece is part of a reference work about the larger field of visual communication.

  • Messaris, P. 1997. Visual persuasion: The role of images in advertising. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    Draws from fields such as semiotics, social psychology, film studies, and sociology to explain how images differ from language and other forms of communication. More specifically, Messaris explores how images work to persuade audiences and identifies three properties of persuasive images: iconicity, indexicality, and syntactic indeterminacy.

  • Mitchell, W. J. T. 1994. Picture theory: Essays on verbal and visual representation. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Explores the relation between words and images and how they construct meaning. Mitchell claims that at the end of the 20th century, contemporary culture and theory were taking a “pictorial turn,” supplanting the previous “linguistic turn,” and argues for the importance of studying visual culture. The examples examined range from cartoons and film to television news coverage.

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