The function and nature of inhibition of neurons in the visual cortex have been the focus of both experimental and theoretical investigations. There are two ways in which inhibition can suppress synaptic excitation. In hyperpolarizing inhibition, negative and positive currents sum linearly to produce a net change in membrane potential. In contrast, shunting inhibition acts nonlinearly by causing an increase in membrane conductance; this divides the amplitude of the excitatory response. Visually evoked changes in membrane conductance have been reported to be nonsignificant or weak, supporting the hyperpolarization mode of inhibition. Here we present a new approach to studying inhibition that is based on in vivo whole-cell voltage clamping. This technique allows the continuous measurement of conductance dynamics during visual activation. We show, in neurons of cat primary visual cortex, that the response to optimally orientated flashed bars can increase the somatic input conductance to more than three times that of the resting state. The short latency of the visually evoked peak of conductance, and its apparent reversal potential suggest a dominant contribution from gamma-aminobutyric acid ((GABA)A) receptor-mediated synapses. We propose that nonlinear shunting inhibition may act during the initial stage of visual cortical processing, setting the balance between opponent 'On' and 'Off' responses in different locations of the visual receptive field.