Photographic "Synecdoche"

The term synecdoche (pronounced si-nek-da-key) is a literary construct introduced in ancient Greece where a word describing part of something is used to represent all of something. People say "a part for the whole"; it's a kind of shorthand.*  Common examples include:

  • "Hired hands" to mean "workers" or "Lend me a hand" when you want more than a hand;
  • "Wheels" to mean "a car"
  • "The Pentagon", a building, used to represent the institution of the military;
  • "Capital Hill" generally being used to represent houses of government;
  • "Kleenex" used generically for all facial tissues.**

Synecdoche is a marginally interesting literary form, but i'd suggest it's the very essence of photography. When we take a photograph we are selecting a very small piece of visual space and cutting it out of our 360 view of the world, and saving it. It's not a comprehensive surveillance of some moment or scene, it's just a tiny slice; we're not (usually) journalists documenting every angle of a news story, we're just selecting a small moment that will represent a larger event.

We also might not show a subject in its entirety: every portrait isn't a head-to-toe, front lit, face shot. We might just show someone in silhouette, or just their eye or legs. This is another kind of synecdoche: a part of a body to represent the entire person. A part of a building to represent the entire building (or city, or vacation...)

In time as well: video (or 360 VR) might be considered a fuller representation of something, and yet we take a surreal slice in time, a fraction of a second, and we expect it to capture something much longer. 

Everything about photography is about synecdoche. I'd suggest that the art of photography is in the creative application of this process—how to chose what slice in space and time is going to well-represent this other thing we want to show. Can one image capture a person's spirit? an entire vacation? The wedding? And when you're really good, the question might be: can a single image represent your childhood? Your hometown? Freedom? The better the photographer's ability to produce synecdoche could be the very core of "great" photography—it's more than a documentary recording; it's more nuanced, it's more poetic, it's generalized such that the photo is iconic.

That word "iconic" speaks to synecdoche. In some ways this is also the effort that brand creators and graphic designers do when making a logo—a small visual element they hope will represent an idea for consumers. Great photographs are often described as iconic: they get pulled into popular culture and become something maybe the photographer hadn't intended, representative of a larger zeitgeist.

Joe Rosenthal, 1945 "Raising the flag on Iwo Jima" = patriotism.

Robert Doisneau, 1950 "Le baiser de l’hôtel de ville"  = romantic love (and currently on display at Neomodern)

Jan Saudek, 1966 "Image 35" = fatherhood

But your iconic photograph doesn't have to capture the national mood, but it could still represent your love for your children or your sense of adventure. Icons come in all sizes.

This is precisely why editing is so important to the definition of photography: it's not enough to take a bunch of pictures, and as photographers we abdicate our responsibility by simply producing hundreds of images of events or people and say "here, pour through my feed..." The process of printing is so challenging in part because our pictures don't stand alone very often, and selecting "the one" is either painful or impossible. But it's also essential. When i say "it isn't photography if you don't print it" i'm not only saying that photography is about the creation of a photographic object, but that the selection process itself (since it takes effort and some money to print just one or a few) is part of the creative work.

Next time you take a whole bunch of pictures of something, see if you can boil it down--first to just 5 images, and then from five to ONE IMAGE that represents all those shots: both content and composition would come together, beautiful and meaningful. And if you do that work then you can truly call yourself a photographer.

I'm speaking and giving workshops on these topics at the VIEW Conference in Turin Italy this October. Come work on your photographic "synecdoche." And if you can't make it to Italy, just come to Neomodern to let us help you with this work. 

 

 


*It also works in reverse, where the general larger thing is used to represent the smaller.

**It's what happens when a branded product name gets appropriated as the generic name for a class of products ("Band Aid" "Zipper" or "Google")—something legal-business people refer to as "genericide" because that sort of use can kill a trademark.