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Example Of A Picture Analysis Essay

Organizing Your Analysis


This resource covers how to write a rhetorical analysis essay of primarily visual texts with a focus on demonstrating the author’s understanding of the rhetorical situation and design principles.

Contributors:Mark Pepper, Allen Brizee, Elizabeth Angeli
Last Edited: 2015-08-30 05:01:04

There is no one perfect way to organize a rhetorical analysis essay. In fact, writers should always be a bit leery of plug-in formulas that offer a perfect essay format. Remember, organization itself is not the enemy, only organization without considering the specific demands of your particular writing task. That said, here are some general tips for plotting out the overall form of your essay.


Like any rhetorical analysis essay, an essay analyzing a visual document should quickly set the stage for what you’re doing. Try to cover the following concerns in the initial paragraphs:

  1. Make sure to let the reader know you’re performing a rhetorical analysis. Otherwise, they may expect you to take positions or make an evaluative argument that may not be coming.
  2. Clearly state what the document under consideration is and possibly give some pertinent background information about its history or development. The intro can be a good place for a quick, narrative summary of the document. The key word here is “quick, for you may be dealing with something large (for example, an entire episode of a cartoon like the Simpsons). Save more in-depth descriptions for your body paragraph analysis.
  3. If you’re dealing with a smaller document (like a photograph or an advertisement), and copyright allows, the introduction or first page is a good place to integrate it into your page.
  4. Give a basic run down of the rhetorical situation surrounding the document: the author, the audience, the purpose, the context, etc.

Thesis Statements and Focus

Many authors struggle with thesis statements or controlling ideas in regards to rhetorical analysis essays. There may be a temptation to think that merely announcing the text as a rhetorical analysis is purpose enough. However, especially depending on your essay’s length, your reader may need a more direct and clear statement of your intentions. Below are a few examples.

1. Clearly narrow the focus of what your essay will cover. Ask yourself if one or two design aspects of the document is interesting and complex enough to warrant a full analytical treatment.

The website for Amazon.com provides an excellent example of alignment and proximity to assist its visitors in navigating a potentially large and confusing amount of information.

2. Since visual documents often seek to move people towards a certain action (buying a product, attending an event, expressing a sentiment), an essay may analyze the rhetorical techniques used to accomplish this purpose. The thesis statement should reflect this goal.

The call-out flyer for the Purdue Rowing Team uses a mixture of dynamic imagery and tantalizing promises to create interest in potential, new members.

3. Rhetorical analysis can also easily lead to making original arguments. Performing the analysis may lead you to an argument; or vice versa, you may start with an argument and search for proof that supports it.

A close analysis of the female body images in the July 2007 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine reveals contradictions between the articles’ calls for self-esteem and the advertisements’ unrealistic, beauty demands.

These are merely suggestions. The best measure for what your focus and thesis statement should be the document itself and the demands of your writing situation. Remember that the main thrust of your thesis statement should be on how the document creates meaning and accomplishes its purposes. The OWl has additional information on writing thesis statements.

Analysis Order (Body Paragraphs)

Depending on the genre and size of the document under analysis, there are a number of logical ways to organize your body paragraphs. Below are a few possible options. Which ever you choose, the goal of your body paragraphs is to present parts of the document, give an extended analysis of how that part functions, and suggest how the part ties into a larger point (your thesis statement or goal).


This is the most straight-forward approach, but it can also be effective if done for a reason (as opposed to not being able to think of another way). For example, if you are analyzing a photo essay on the web or in a booklet, a chronological treatment allows you to present your insights in the same order that a viewer of the document experiences those images. It is likely that the images have been put in that order and juxtaposed for a reason, so this line of analysis can be easily integrated into the essay.

Be careful using chronological ordering when dealing with a document that contains a narrative (i.e. a television show or music video). Focusing on the chronological could easily lead you to plot summary which is not the point of a rhetorical analysis.


A spatial ordering covers the parts of a document in the order the eye is likely to scan them. This is different than chronological order, for that is dictated by pages or screens where spatial order concerns order amongst a single page or plane. There are no unwavering guidelines for this, but you can use the following general guidelines.

  • Left to right and top to down is still the normal reading and scanning pattern for English-speaking countries.
  • The eye will naturally look for centers. This may be the technical center of the page or the center of the largest item on the page.
  • Lines are often used to provide directions and paths for the eye to follow.
  • Research has shown that on web pages, the eye tends to linger in the top left quadrant before moving left to right. Only after spending a considerable amount of time on the top, visible portion of the page will they then scroll down.

Persuasive Appeals

The classic, rhetorical appeals are logos, pathos, and ethos. These concepts roughly correspond to the logic, emotion, and character of the document’s attempt to persuade. You can find more information on these concepts elsewhere on the OWL. Once you understand these devices, you could potentially order your essay by analyzing the document’s use of logos, ethos, and pathos in different sections.


The conclusion of a rhetorical analysis essay may not operate too differently from the conclusion of any other kind of essay. Still, many writers struggle with what a conclusion should or should not do. You can find tips elsewhere on the OWL on writing conclusions. In short, however, you should restate your main ideas and explain why they are important; restate your thesis; and outline further research or work you believe should be completed to further your efforts.

September 2006

On my page on “Examples of Critical Reading,” I write that critical reading “means asking
what we can learn from the way the author selected and arranged facts the way she
did.” The same is true of images, only we look for the selection and arrangement of visual elements, rather than facts.

Here are three examples of critical readings of images. Note how in each case the critic asks what choices the creator made about what to show and what to omit.

Sarah Luria Reads a Portrait

Analysis of Edward Savage, “George Washington holding a plan for the capital city,” 1793

Source: Sarah Luria, Capital Speculations: Writing and Building Washington, D.C. (Durham, N.H. Lebanon, N.H.: University of New Hampshire Press; University Press of New England, 2006), 25-27; image from “Washington: Symbol and City,” Blueprints 9 (Winter 1991).

“A portrait of George Washington with the plan for the Federal City, engraved in 1793 by Edward Savage, shows how the delineation of a new and grand city lent credence to the image of Washington as ”King George” while celebrating the originality of Washington”s vision and its power to bend nature to his political design. The plan is presented as Washington”s brainchild . . . he calmly gazes into the magnificent future prescribed by his design and echoed by the open sky in the background. While Jefferson gazes in adoration upon the classical past, Washington is equally transfixed by the future—he appears even to be looking at his city, already built. It is there, he can see it, and we are invited to see it too. This confident expectancy is further suggested by the way Washington supplements the classical past, as represented by the column. He turns his back to it and yet subsumes it by the uprightness of his posture; he becomes a pillar himself of the future state. Contrary to Jefferson”s dark view, this portrait suggests that it is no crime to have ”the vision thing.”

“The inevitable success of this vision is suggested by the rest of the engraving, which points to the power of the mind to turn nature into art: flowers are transformed into the floral motif on the chair, drapery, lace cuff, hair ribbon, and bow resting upon the plan; they are echoed even in the petal-like quality of Washington”s hair. The flowerlike bow, hovering over the plan, hints at how nature inspired the radiating intersections of avenues. The engraving further imposes Washington”s very person upon the land itself: the Eastern Branch follows the course of his knee, his fingers are compared to the avenues, his pants buckle serve as a template for the city blocks—the very paper of the plan, then, becomes a landscape that bends in Washington”s hand.”

Peter Bacon Hales Reads a Photograph

Analysis of Jacob Riis, “Hebrew Master Ready for Sabbath Eve in a Coal Cellar”

Source: Peter Bacon Hales, Silver Cities 314-315; image from San Antonio Public Library, “Jewish Experience in the Americas,” http://www.sat.lib.tx.us/JETA/photography.htm (27 August 2006).

Jacob Riis, Hebrew Master Ready for Sabbath Eve in a Coal Cellar

“Photographs such as ”Hebrew Master Ready for Sabbath Eve in a Coal Cellar” manipulate the inherent democracy of the lens and the flash illumination; the eye is forced to pick its way from object to object, to choose between a challah loaf and a shovel, a dirty coat and a sign in Hebrew. Because Riis seems not to call attention to any one particular element in the photograph, he gives the impression of total disengagement and absolute objectivity.

“Riis often used his framing to accentuate this quality. In this photograph, the seemingly arbitrary placement of the right-hand edge (cutting off one figure and leaving only a pair of disjointed hands holding a shovel) combines with the overall tilt of the frame to give an unsettled look to the picture. In fact, this picture is so carefully composed and utterly purposeful that it demands that ill-formed appearance. That shovel must be in the picture, for it signals the inappropriateness of the coal cellar as a dwelling. We are, apparently, watching a devout Jew interrupted from his devotions by the rude work around him. To include more than the hands of the shoveler, however, might detract from the presence of that lone human figure; it would also decrease the symbolic force of that shovel. The loaf of bread, close to the center of the frame and carefully separate from the other details of this man”s meal, serves graphically to emphasize the religious nature of this moment.”

Roland Marchand Reads an Advertisement

Analysis of various ads from the 1920s and 1930s

Source: Roland Marchand, Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, 1920-1940(Berkeley;
Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985), 260; image of Peerless Motor Car Co. Ad, c. 1927, from The History Project at UC Davis, Roland Marchand Collection, http://historyproject.ucdavis.edu/ic/image_details.php?id=437(23 May 2010) Though this particular image does not appear opposite the quoted text from Marchand”s book, it is similar to the images that do.

Peerless Motor Car Co. Ad, c. 1927

“The economic transformation of ”village America” hardly devitalized the American village as a visual cliché in advertising. Like a lingering ghost-image, the idealized American small town, with its connotations of unity, neighborliness and comfortable human scale, became a sight more familiar to Americans through the advertising pages than through their direct experience. . . .

“In most advertisements, the village appeared as part of the background rather than as the focus of attention. Often it was no more than a stylized miniature. Still, it helped evoke an atmosphere and contributed to a conventional perception of the American landscape. Certain stereotyped characteristic can be observed even in the most minute versions of this visual cliché. Almost invariably, the idealized village contained a single spire that towered above the other buildings . . . The houses of the town were grouped closely together, with the steeple or spire roughly in the center. Almost never did another prominent building appear–except in close-up illustrations of the main street with its bank, general store, and perhaps a gas station and movie theater. Grain elevators, mills, and other evidences of processing or production for export were virtually non-existent. If a highway entered the town, it usually followed a gently winding course.

“These tableaux did not present idealized American villages as nostalgic images of the past. Although often stylized in appearance, these villages purported to represent part of the current landscape that consumers would experience while using the batteries, motor oils, tires, auto accessories, soaps, telephones, and other products featured in the ads. As they viewed repeated images of these pristine eternal villages, readers could find assurance that, despite the advance of awesome and impersonal skyscraper cities, their society still retained the qualities suggested by ”village America.””

For more examples of image analysis by historians, see the sections on maps, photographs, advertisements, and cartoons at “Making Sense of Evidence,” History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web, http://historymatters.gmu.edu/browse/makesense/

Portrait of Washington by Edward Savage

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