Synecdoche: The Essence of Images

Yoshiko Yap

Table of Contents

I was struggling by means of Caesar in 10th grade Latin course when I 1st read the expression “synecdoche” (although the phrase is from the Greek) — it’s a determine of speech exactly where a aspect of a thing is used to depict the complete. These days, common synecdoche include things like “threads” to necessarily mean garments, as in “dig these new threads I’m sporting.” Or “boots on the ground” when speaking about soldiers. Or “she acquired a neat established of wheels” to signify a new motor vehicle.

About that very same time, I was falling deeply into photography, and it normally appeared to me that a photograph was a synecdoche far too. And comprehension that rhetorical device assisted me evolve in the way I captured topics in photographs. So though a synecdoche is absolutely a literary form, I’ve constantly felt its application was broader.

Rubin, Coit Tower 3:15AM (2015) — a synecdoche of the well known monument.

Visual Synecdoche

The environment is all about us, in 360 degrees, all the time, loaded in visible knowledge, and a photograph is a small minor rectangle we use to clip out a modest little bit of visual area. We really don’t display every thing, we present this frame. And we assume that smaller body to signify additional than just that slice.

But even more than that, the way the photograph slices up visible space to represent things can be rather poetic. When we shift from “obvious” to “obscure” in some cases we’re moving from a headshot to something indirect.

Adam Savage and the Maltese Falcon (Rubin, 2008).

Here’s a picture of Adam Savage holding his remarkable reproduction of the Maltese Falcon. It’s a good Iphone snapshot, a standard variety of documenting portrait. But to build a much more intriguing portrait of him I did not have to have his experience shot, thoroughly lit, clearly representing all the things going on — that could come to feel like too substantially, as well common, much too obvious I could acquire a photo of his fingers, just a bit of the statue peeking out. That is a synecdoche. Or a profile. Or a shadow. It doesn’t have to be a significant finish doc, it can be just a section, and I use that to represent the entire.

Adam Savage and the Maltese Falcon (Rubin, 2008)

It was not a huge cognitive leap, of training course. I was acquainted with vintage photos like Alma Lavenson’s self-portrait (just her arms around her camera), and even Kertesz’s portrait of Piet Mondrian, just his pipe and glasses (which I may possibly argue is far more metonymy*, but we’re splitting hairs.)

Alma Lavenson, Self Portrait (1932).

Here are other of my portraits that are far more poetic as visible synecdoche.

Musician Joan Baez (Rubin, 1998)
Artist Gronk (Rubin, 2015)
Film editor Kate Sanford (Rubin, 2015)
Musician Butterscotch (Rubin, 2016)

Images can depict our supposed topics specifically, but they can also be synecdoche, and represent them far more obliquely.

Temporal Synecdoche

Photographs also slice a teeny portion of a 2nd from the infinite continuum that is time. I consider this 125th of a 2nd and preserve it, and use it to represent all these seconds, all these moments — of the party, of the vacation, of my afternoon. This is also a kind of synecdoche — a split 2nd representing an event.

It will work on a much larger scale also. I’m on vacation, and I really don’t want to photograph anything I see, every single working day of the vacation. I’m not a journalist masking the celebration. This is not my task. I’m in my daily life. I really don’t have to dwell behind the camera and knowledge every little thing as a result of that filter. My pics sample the time I’m absent.

I could acquire a handful of pictures one particular working day, and they could stand for the total holiday vacation — a couple fractions of a 2nd and they signify two months in Paris. When you want to see my photographs from the vacation, I never present you all 3000 photographs I took I cull that established down to 20… or 3… and these get posted to Instagram or pasted in a scrapbook. They represent.

This is how photos develop into legendary. Think of all the wonderful news images that may have began as a snapshot of anything — like the flag being elevated on Iwo Jima by Joe Rosenthal — the graphic of that minute has arrive to represent one thing quintessentially patriotic, a sort of synecdoche.

Temporal synecdoche of my daughter. 2019. Immediately after months of driving all around with each other practising, this was the moment of her driver’s take a look at. I didn’t require a lot more than a single image to capture that interval of our lives together.
2012. A instant excised from hundreds of comparable moments of us playing gin in San Francisco.

I made use of to consider that the editing method concerned exploring for the quintessential picture shot of a little something, the iconic picture. I have occur to believe that any quantity of shots may well be a fantastic representation of a man or woman or celebration, and the reality is that the collection method is what helps make one particular picture iconic. Like staying on the deal with of Daily life magazine or staying proven in a museum. There are a lot of suitable responses, but you choose one particular, and that spotlight raises a picture to a new degree.

Synecdoche is the essence of pictures impression-makers are continuously picking bits of house and time to explain their ordeals. It’s the defining attribute of the art variety. And after you totally grasp this notion, it liberates your photo-getting to be far more creative and poetic. Test it.


*Metonymy is related, but it is not a section of the matter symbolizing the total matter, but some other connected object — like stating “The Crown” to mean the queen. In images, this would suggest the portrait didn’t seriously have any of the person in it, but just their things. We do this all the time in visual storytelling — it is a cut-absent shot that provides texture and flavor.


P.S. If you delight in this way of approaching pictures I really encourage you to get a single of my workshops as a result of the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops. There are periodic 3-7 days on the web programs (6 periods), and this summertime there is an in-individual 1-7 days intense that ought to be fun for any creative amateur, it’s possible if you have plateaued, feel like you are superior at picture taking, but want to drive by yourself. In any case, Many thanks for listening.


About the author: Michael Rubin, formerly of Lucasfilm, Netflix and Adobe, is a photographer and host of the podcast “Every day Images, Each individual Day.” The views expressed in this write-up are only those people of the creator. To see additional from Rubin, take a look at Neomodern or give him a abide by on Instagram. This short article was also posted right here.


Picture credits: Header picture from Depositphotos. All other pictures copyright © 2021 MH Rubin.

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