Documentary photography aims to capture the material reality of life. In Rhetorical Exposures, Christopher Carter demonstrates how the creation and display of documentary photographs–now often called “imagetexts”–both invite analysis and raise persistent questionsJkt_Carter_mktg about the political and social causes for the bleak scenes of poverty and distress captured on film.

Carter’s carefully reasoned monograph examines both formal qualities of composition and the historical contexts of the production and display of documentary photographs. In Rhetorical Exposures, Carter explores Jacob Riis’s heartrending photos of Manhattan’s poor in late nineteenth-century New York, Walker Evans’s iconic images of tenant farmers in west Alabama, Ted Streshinsky’s images of 1960s social movements, Camilo José Vergara’s photographic landscapes of urban dereliction in the 1970s, and Chandra McCormick’s portraits of New Orleans’s Ninth Ward scarred by Hurricane Katrina.

While not ascribing specifically political or Marxist intentions to the photographers discussed, Carter frames his arguments in a class-based dialectic that addresses material want as an ineluctable result of social inequality. Carter argues that social documentary photography has the powerful capacity to disrupt complacent habits of viewing and to prompt viewers to confront injustice. Though photography may induce socially disruptive experiences, it remains vulnerable to the same power dynamics it subverts. Therefore, Carter offers a “rhetoric of exposure” that outlines how such social documentary images can be treated as highly tensioned rhetorical objects. His framework enables the analysis of photographs as heterogeneous records of the interaction of social classes and expressions of specific built environments.

As the creation and dissemination of new media continues to evolve in an environment of increasing anxiety about growing financial inequality, Rhetorical Exposures offers a very apt and timely discussion of the ways social documentary photography is created, employed, and understood.


Christopher Carter is an associate professor and director of composition in the English Department at the University of Cincinnati. He is the author of Rhetoric and Resistance in the Corporate Academy and a past editor of Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor. His essays have appeared in College English, JAC, Rhetoric Review, and Works and Days.


Rhetorical Exposures is a fascinating and well-argued book. It admirably balances theoretical-conceptual exposition and critical-analytical prose about visual, material, and verbal discourses. Carter’s commitment to an unabashedly dialectical, call-based reading of social documentary photography is significant. Such an analysis frames the book’s photographers as forceful rhetoricians with political agenda.”
–Bruce E. Gronbeck, coauthor of Communication Criticism: Rhetoric, Social Codes, Cultural Studies and Critical Approaches to Television

“Carter positions his ‘rhetoric of exposure’ in current critical and theoretical discussions, and yet admirably never loses sight of its grounding in the actual photographs and struggles of the photographers. This convincing and informative work maintains a critical edge without condescending to the photographers as conscientious agents.”
–Thomas W. Benson, author of Writing JFK: Presidential Rhetoric and the Press in the Bay of Pigs Crisis and Posters for Peace: Visual Rhetoric and Civic Action


Trade Cloth
6 X 9, 216 pp
ISBN: 978-0-8173-1862-8 Cloth
ISBN: 978-0-8173-8810-2 Ebook
Price: $44.95

RCS logo.indd