Quick definition: visual rhetoric is a form of communication that uses images to create meaning or construct an argument. Here's an example:
The image shown here is the 2002-2003 promotional poster for the Stanford men's basketball team that was distributed in paper form and also reproduced on a large scale on the billboard on the corner of Galvez and El Camino Real during last year's basketball season. Think for a minute about this picture. What is the "argument" made by this image?

What is the impression that the image makes on its audience? How does the caption at the bottom of the poster work in collaboration with the image? How would the message have changed it the poster had been a painting rather than a photograph? If it had shown the team in action? If it had focused on fewer players? If you look at the 2002-2003 Football promotional poster, you'll see a similar argument at work.

However, there are some differences: the use of color rather than black and white; the inclusion of the coach in the photo; the use of the caption

"Codename: Operation Cardinal" in the upper left hand corner. How do these differences transform the argument?

You could continue this type of analysis in many ways:

  • By looking at the 2003-2004 promotional posters to see how the approach has changed for the new sports season
  • By comparing men's and women's athletics to see what differences you see along gender lines
  • By comparing Stanford posters to posters for the same sports from different Universities
  • By comparing promotional materials for college and professional athletics

In analyzing images in this way, what you're doing is analyzing VISUAL RHETORIC: the way the images work on their own and collaborate with written text to create an argument designed to move a specific audience.