Visual Studies Research Institute

Funded primarily by USC Dornsife and building on the success of the Visual Studies Graduate Certificate, the VSRI focuses on the nature, analysis and evaluation of visual evidence in order to interrogate the relationship of seeing, believing, and proving from Antiquity to the present.

As active and alert citizens and scholars, we have learned to unpack the rhetoric of speeches and of journalism, and to treat written and spoken claims and assertions with appropriate skepticism. But images of protests or pollution or poverty that are flashed around the world very often seem to offer unmediated truths. The growing role of the Internet and the World Wide Web over the last fifteen years has been to facilitate the transmission of visual information whilst simultaneously removing many of the traditional structures of knowledge that have claimed authority when it comes to interpreting an image. This research Institute takes as its starting point that we learn to recognize and debate the implications of what we think that we see.

“Evidence” is something that underpins the basic concepts and methods that shape the terrain of the humanities and the sciences alike. It invites the exploration of “objectivity,” “reliability,” and “bias.” To focus on it as a topic is to open up issues to do with problems of hypothesis, modeling, and experimentation – and their representation and sharing. The degree to which visual examples, diagrams, charts, and animations serve to communicate knowledge and understanding is central to the construction – and potential modification – of the intellectual landscape of today’s university. Examining the implications of visual evidence leads us to assess the foundations of individual disciplines, the criteria that matter the most in developing their arguments, and the advantages – and problems – of interdisciplinary connections. How do the social sciences, the humanities, and the natural sciences employ visual evidence to produce plausible explanations about the workings of social, imaginative, and natural worlds, now and in the past? 

The Institute is based around an on-going seminar, associated with invited speakers, a team-taught graduate seminar, undergraduate and graduate research fellowships and a conference and publication project. The seminar topic in AY 2013-14 was  “News Pictures” and in AY 2014-15 will be “Material Evidence.”

VSRI News & Events

Grief: The History of the World’s First Holocaust Liberation Photograph


Wednesday, September 9
3:30 – 5pm
SOS 250

David Shneer, Louis Singer Chair in Jewish History, Professor of History and Religious Studies, University of Colorado, Boulder.  

Shneer’s award-winning book, Through Soviet Jewish Eyes: Photography, War and the Holocaust (2011), was a groundbreaking study of Soviet photojournalism during World War II and beyond. Using an extensive range of archival sources, Shneer uncoveredthe networks of photographers and photo editors who shaped the USSR’s visual understanding of the war and its aftermath. He is now working on a microhistory of the world’s first Holocaust liberation photograph, which he will discuss. Deeply interested in how photography shaped the public’s understanding of World War II in the USSR and America alike, Shneer looks at how mythologies about the war were created in exhibition and photo books in the postwar period.

Co-Sponsored by the USC Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life

Image credit: Dmitri Baltermants, Grief, photo taken in 1942, published in Ogonyok, 1965. © Dmitri Baltermants/The Dmitri Baltermants Collection/Corbis.




Decoding the Renaissance: 500 Years of Codes and Ciphers


Wednesday, September 30
12.30 – 2pm
SOS 250

Bill Sherman, Head of Research, Victoria & Albert Museum

The Renaissance was the first great age of mass communication, but it was also the period when the art of secret writing came into its own. The new science of codes and ciphers produced some of the period’s most brilliant inventions, most beautiful books, and most enduring legacies. It left its mark on virtually every aspect of Renaissance culture, including the development of diplomacy and the waging of war, the creation of a postal system, the invention of sign language, and the search for hidden meanings in literature and the visual arts. The Renaissance, in turn, provided the inspiration for the pioneering modern code-breaker,William F. Friedman — chief cryptanalyst for the U.S. government from the 1920s to the 1950s, who broke the Japanese code in World War II, wrote many of the field’s foundational texts, and coined the very term “cryptanalysis” for the study of secret writing systems. Bill Sherman, noted scholar of Renaissance England and Head of Research at the Victoria & Albert Museum, will discuss the visual culture of codes and ciphers from the Renaissance to the twentieth century, the exhibition he curated on this topic at the Folger Library, and the ways in which universities and museums interact as sites for scholarship and pedagogy on visual and material culture.

Co-sponsored by the USC-Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute, Visual and Material Culture Seminar

Future events in this series during Fall 2015:

10/14: Susan Dackerman, Harvard Art Museums and Getty Research Institute 11/18: Cécile Fromont, University of Chicago

Image Credit: A cipher disk (or volvelle) from a 1591 edition of Giambattista Della Porta, De furtivis literarum notis vulgo




USC - LACMA History of Photography Series: Why Paintings Could No Longer Be Pictures: the Onset of Photography Revisited



September 24
7 – 9pm
Doheny Library 233

Robin Kelsey, Shirley Carter Burden Professor of Photography, Department of History of Art & Architecture, Harvard University 

Comment: Jeannene Przyblyski, California Institute of the Arts 

That the arrival of photography in the mid-nineteenth century delivered a new kind of picture is beyond dispute. Discussions of that newness, however, have tended to flow down familiar channels. This lecture will reconsider the notion that the photograph introduced a new social form of depiction. To date, scholars have tended to argue that photography empowered a burgeoning middle class of European descent while subjecting members of subjugated classes or ethnicities to new forms of archival control. This scholarship has neglected a crucial shift in pictures that photography historically promised, namely the collapse of the social boundary between makers and viewers. As this lecture will argue, it is via this collapse and the reciprocity it brought to the economy of depiction that photography offered its most fundamental challenge to painting. Although it has become a truism that the cheap realism of photography drove painting to abstraction, a strong case can be made that painterly illusionism faltered because photography had put to rout the social asymmetry on which that illusionism relied.

The USC-LACMA History of Photography is a collaboration that fosters scholarly dialogue among curators, university professors, photographers, filmmakers, and independent researchers. As a medium that exists at the intersection of art, science and commerce, photography necessarily requires interdisciplinary examination. 

The series is organized by Ryan Linkof, Assistant Curator, LACMA.

Future events in this series during Fall 2015:

10/20: Kate Palmer Albers, University of Arizona
12/01: Susan Laxton, Assistant Professor, UC Riverside

For more details, visit

Please RSVP one week prior to all events at VSRI@USC.EDU




A Thin Red Line: The "Presence" of Prehistoric Pictoriality


October 7
12:30 - 2pm
SOS 250 

Whitney Davis, George C. and Helen N. Pardee Professor of History & Theory of Ancient & Modern Art, UC Berkeley, and Visiting Professor of History of Art, University of York, UK

The discovery of the astonishingly naturalistic Aurignacian paintings at the Cave of Chauvet (c. 32,000 BCE), as well as the release of Werner Herzog's intriguing film Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), have reopened long-standing questions about the status of virtuality, illusion, animacy, and "presence" in prehistoric pictorial art, perhaps shaped in shamanistic cultural contexts. Recent neuro-cognitive and kinaesthetic-affective aesthetics have added novel theoretical terms to older conceptions of the magical-ritual, immersive, and deeply corporeal nature of the "cave art experience." Still, questions remain about the "presence" of prehistoric pictures--about the visibility and efficacy of pictoriality as such, of the "work" of picture making, as distinct from the virtual object-worlds it creates. The talk explores a general model of the "recursion" of the pictorial in the virtual with special reference to the diversity of early Upper Paleolithic image making.

Image credit: Two Lions, Painting in the End Chamber, Grotte de Chauvet, c. 32,000 BCE. Photo by Jean Clottes.




CV and Grant - Writing Workshop


October 10
10am – 5pm
SOS 250

A workshop designed to help graduate students across diverse disciplines prepare effective applications for fellowships and positions. In the morning, graduate students at all stages are welcome to attend a discussion of strategies for preparing effective CVs and applications. In the afternoon break-out sessions, selected students will workshop their proposals in small groups led by faculty mentors with experience screening applications. Visiting scholars and USC faculty representing a range of disciplinary interests will lead the workshop and comment on sample materials submitted in advance by graduate students. 


- Daniela Bleichmar, Director of VSGC and Associate Professor of Art History and History, USC 

- Leo Braudy, University Professor and Leo S. Bing Chair in English and American Literature, USC

- Jim Herbert, Associate Dean for Curriculum and Student Service School of Humanities, UC Irvine

- Priya Jaikumar, Associate Professor, The Bryan Singer Division of Cinema and Media Studies, USC

- Jeff Wasserstrom, Chancellor’s Professor of History, UC Irvine

Questions? Email 

APPLICATIONS to participate will be due September 24. CVs and Proposals for pre-circulation will be due October 1.




Dürer, Prints, and Knowledge


Wednesday, October 14
12:30 - 2pm
SOS 250

Susan Dackerman, Harvard Art Museums and Getty Research Institute 

Co-sponsored by the USC-Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute, Visual and Material Culture Seminar

Future events in this series during Fall 2015:

11/18: Cécile Fromont, University of Chicago




Contemporary Seminar Series: Art, Technology, and Social Memory


Friday, October 16
12 - 2pm
SOS 250

Ina Blom, University of Oslo

This lecture investigates the ways in which the technical arrangements of analog video opened onto new forms of social memory and hence also new social ontologies. It traces the agency of a technological object that deploys artistic and aesthetic formats and contexts as part of its exploration of its own temporalizing potentials. While such an approach may be associated with an anthropological tradition preoccupied with the biography of objects, the specific affordances of video suggest a significant twist in this narrative: it now appears as if video deploys artistic contexts and framework for an autobiographical inscription that turns around its own particular memory-functions. 

Future events in this series during Fall 2015:

11/16: Katy Siegel, Hunter College

Co-sponsored by the USC Art History Department

 Image Credit: Video still from Steina Vasulka, Orbital Obsessions, 1977.




USC - LACMA History of Photography Series: The Ephemeral Photograph: From Salt Prints to Snapchat


October 20
7 – 9pm
 LACMA Study Center, Art of the Americas Building, Plaza Level, LACMA

Kate Palmer Albers, University of Arizona

Comment: Ryan Linkof, LACMA

We are primed in our culture today to view photographic images at a glance, with the ready knowledge that the image – if not the object – can be easily accessed again. Yet ephemerality has been a persistent and, recently, even sought-after condition of the medium, despite well-coordinated efforts to ensure ongoing visual stability. This presentation will consider several instances of photographic impermanence, from the “failures” of the collaborators Thomas Wedgwood and Humphrey Davy during the so-called pre-history of photography through to the more recent experiments of artists, such as Robert Heinecken’s Vanishing Photographs (1973) and projects by Phil Chang and Alec Soth. Dwelling on photography’s ephemeral dimensions profoundly shifts the viewing experience and alters expectations weighted upon the medium. Far from being photography at its least compelling and least valuable, ephemerally shared photographs reconfigure established notions of photographic value and upend the material privilege that generally consumes appreciation of the medium.

Future events in this series during Fall 2015:

12/01: Susan Laxton, Assistant Professor, UC Riverside 

For more details, visit

Please RSVP one week prior to all events at VSRI@USC.EDU




The Revolution Will Be Videotaped: Making a Technology of Consciousness in the Long 1960s


Wednesday, October 28
12:30 - 2pm
SOS 250 

Peter Collopy, Mellon Digital Humanities Postdoctoral Research Fellow, USC

In the late 1960s, video recorders became portable, leaving the television studio for the art gallery, the psychiatric hospital, and the streets. Between 1967 and 1973, American videographers across many of these institutional contexts participated in a common discourse, sharing not only practical knowledge about the uses and maintenance of video equipment, but visions of its social significance, psychological effects, and utopian future. For many, video was a technology which would bring about a new kind of awareness, the communal consiousness that—influenced by the evolutionary philosophy of Henri Bergson—Pierre Teilhard de Chardin referred to as the "noosphere" and Marshall McLuhan as the "global village."




Envisioning Cross-Cultural Knowledge: Capuchin Images of Early Modern Kongo and Angola
     Wednesday, November 14 
12:30 - 2pm
SOS 250

Cécile Fromont, University of Chicago

Co-sponsored by the USC-Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute, Visual and Material Culture Seminar




USC-LACMA History of Photography Series: Moholy's Doubt


December 2
7 – 9pm
Doheny Library 233

Susan Laxton, UC Riverside 

Comment: Carol S. Eliel, LACMA

As part of the Bauhaus imperative to keep pace with the radical social and cultural changes wrought by modernism, László Moholy-Nagy began experimenting with photograms. Located impossibly at the intersection of sculpture and photography; essence and inauthenticity; creativity and reproduction, avant-garde photograms emerged as avatars of photographic contingency that posed fatal challenges to the conflicting notions of objectivity and artistic agency on which art photography had depended for its validity. Moholy-Nagy’s photograms refused to conform to the Bauhaus master’s instrumentalist appraisal of photographic techniques. As such, they cast doubt on the theory of creative production with which he sought to codify the newly disciplined, functionalist Bauhaus program.

Please RSVP one week prior to all events at VSRI@USC.EDU




VSRI Welcomes Daniela Bleichmar as Director of the Visual Studies Graduate Certificate




Daniela Bleichmar is a specialist in the history of visual culture, knowledge production and circulation, cross-cultural exchange, collecting and display, and prints and books in the early modern world. She has published on botanical art in Enlightenment science, the connection between natural history and art collections, the history of scientific observation, and issues of geographical and cultural fluidity in early modern collecting, among other topics. She has long been involved with the VSGC and the VSRI at USC.

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