art

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

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.


*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.

Defining Modernism — Group f.64

On a pivotal evening at the 683 Brockhurst Gallery in Oakland, California, in 1932, seven West coast photographers –Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, John Paul Edwards, Sonya Noskowiak, Henry Swift, Willard Van Dyke and Edward Weston — declared themselves Group f.64. Consciously celebrating the camera itself, these artists derived their name from the smallest aperture available on a large format camera lens. A lens setting at f.64 provided a precise image with the greatest range of sharp focus from foreground to background. Through its name and a landmark exhibition that same year, Group f.64 proclaimed the independent ambitions and aesthetics that helped define modernist photography.

Self-Portrait, Alma Lavenson, 1932

Self-Portrait, Alma Lavenson, 1932

By embracing the unique properties of their medium, Group f.64 broke from the sentimental ideals and painterly techniques of the prevailing Pictorialist tradition. Instead, they advocated the potential of photography to render an objective realism that illuminated the essence of pure form. Members of Group f.64 concentrated on the ordinary object seen in extraordinary ways. They isolated objects from context and directed their attention to details and design, employing close-ups, cropping, flattening, and ambiguities of size and scale. Their work frequently embodied a passionate and spiritual search for what Edward Weston called “the life force within the form” (Rosenblum, p.36).

Group f.64 photographers — nearly one-half of whom were women — shared utopian aspirations and radical methods, but their work also encompassed contradictory incentives and conflicting goals. Largly self-taught, they produced portraits, landscapes, and nudes in geometric and organic forms. Their work was employed in art photography, news reportage, advertising, and for documentary purposes. Some defined themselves as artists; others did not. They called attention to the photographer’s subjective vision while asserting the impersonal detachment of the camera apparatus. Many were passionately committed to social reform; others saw social relevance in the aesthetic image itself. Though they insisted on “pure vision” their notion of pure photography allowed for a wide range of technical approaches, including both manipulated and non-manipulated images.

The work of Group f.64 emerged from avant-garde currents that had existed for at least two decades in the United States and longer in Europe. The modernist movement on both sides o the Atlantic drew much of its vigor from the industrial transformation of the urban environment. The machine became central to a faith in a new age where technology promised a better life for the average citizen. Its geometric forms became a favored subject of Precisionist painters and photographers alike. Industrial subjects, shapes, and surfaces are prominent in the work of Edward Weston, Edwards, Lavenson, and Noskowiak, while Adams and many of these same artists were drawn to the geometric and cubist shapes of New Mexican pueblo architecture.

Group f.64 was built upon a loose and already established association of friends that included professional, romantic and filial relationships. Several artists benefited from exhibitions at the photography gallery run by Williard Van Dyke and Mary Jeanette Edwards at 683 Brockhurst Street in Oakland. Especially important, too, was the patronage of Lloyd Rollins, director of the M. H. de Young Memorial Musueum in San Francisco, where the group’s inaugural exhibition opened on November 15, 1932. This seminal exhibition also included invited associates Preson Holder, Consuelo Kanaga, and Alma Lavenson.

— Kerry Oliver-Smith

Curator of Contemporary Art, Harn Museum of Art
2001