Synecdoche: The Essence of Pictures

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I used to be struggling via Caesar in tenth grade Latin class once I first heard the time period “synecdoche” (though the time period is from the Greek) — it’s a determine of speech the place part of one thing is used to characterize the entire. At present, acquainted synecdoche embody “threads” to imply clothes, as in “dig these new threads I’m sporting.” Or “boots on the bottom” when speaking about troopers. Or “she bought a cool set of wheels” to imply a brand new automotive.

Round that very same time, I used to be falling deeply into images, and it all the time appeared to me {that a} {photograph} was a synecdoche too. And understanding that rhetorical system helped me evolve in the way in which I captured topics in pictures. So whereas a synecdoche is actually a literary kind, I’ve all the time felt its utility was broader.

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

Visible Synecdoche

The world is throughout us, in 360 levels, on a regular basis, wealthy in visible information, and {a photograph} is a tiny little rectangle we use to clip out a small little bit of visible house. We don’t present all the things, we present this body. And we anticipate that small body to characterize extra than simply that slice.

However much more than that, the way in which the picture slices up visible house to characterize issues might be considerably poetic. Once we shift from “apparent” to “obscure” generally we’re shifting from a headshot to one thing indirect.

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

Right here’s a photograph of Adam Savage holding his superb reproduction of the Maltese Falcon. It’s an honest iPhone snapshot, a typical form of documenting portrait. However to create a extra fascinating portrait of him I didn’t want his face shot, totally lit, clearly representing all the things happening — that would really feel like too a lot, too typical, too apparent; I may take a photograph of his arms, only a little bit of the statue peeking out. That’s a synecdoche. Or a profile. Or a shadow. It doesn’t need to be an enormous full doc, it may be only a half, and I take advantage of that to characterize the entire.

Adam Savage and the Maltese Falcon (Rubin, 2008)

It wasn’t an enormous cognitive leap, in fact. I used to be acquainted with basic pictures like Alma Lavenson’s self-portrait (simply her arms round her digicam), and even Kertesz’s portrait of Piet Mondrian, simply his pipe and glasses (which I’d argue is extra metonymy*, however we’re splitting hairs.)

Alma Lavenson, Self Portrait (1932).

Listed below are different of my portraits which might be extra poetic as visible synecdoche.

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

Photographs can characterize our supposed topics instantly, however they may also be synecdoche, and characterize them extra obliquely.

Temporal Synecdoche

Photographs additionally slice a teeny fraction of a second from the infinite continuum that’s time. I take this one hundred and twenty fifth of a second and reserve it, and use it to characterize all these seconds, all these moments — of the get together, of the holiday, of my afternoon. That is additionally a form of synecdoche — a break up second representing an occasion.

It really works on a bigger scale too. I’m on trip, and I don’t have to {photograph} all the things I see, day by day of the holiday. I’m not a journalist masking the occasion. This isn’t my job. I’m in my life. I don’t need to stay behind the digicam and expertise all the things via that filter. My pictures pattern the time I’m away.

I may take just a few pictures in the future, they usually may characterize the complete trip — just a few fractions of a second they usually signify two weeks in Paris. Once you need to see my pictures from the journey, I don’t present you all 3000 photographs I took; I cull that set down to twenty… or 3… and these get posted to Instagram or pasted in a scrapbook. They characterize.

That is how pictures turn out to be iconic. Consider all the good information pictures which will have began as a snapshot of one thing — just like the flag being raised on Iwo Jima by Joe Rosenthal — the picture of that second has come to characterize one thing quintessentially patriotic, a form of synecdoche.

Temporal synecdoche of my daughter. 2019. After months of driving round collectively training, this was the second of her driver’s take a look at. I didn’t want multiple picture to seize that interval of our lives collectively.
2012. A second excised from a whole lot of comparable moments of us enjoying gin in San Francisco.

I used to imagine that the modifying course of concerned looking for the quintessential picture shot of one thing, the long-lasting picture. I’ve come to imagine that any variety of photographs is perhaps an excellent illustration of an individual or occasion, and the very fact is that the choice course of is what makes one picture iconic. Like being on the quilt of Life journal or being proven in a museum. There are numerous proper solutions, however you decide one, and that highlight raises a photograph to a brand new degree.

Synecdoche is the essence of images; image-makers are continuously choosing bits of house and time to explain their experiences. It’s the defining attribute of the artwork kind. And when you totally grasp this idea, it liberates your picture-taking to be extra creative and poetic. Attempt it.


*Metonymy is comparable, but it surely’s not a half of the factor representing the entire thing, however another related object — like saying “The Crown” to imply the queen. In images, this could imply the portrait didn’t actually have any of the particular person in it, however simply their stuff. We do that on a regular basis in visible storytelling — it’s a cut-away shot that provides texture and taste.


P.S. In case you get pleasure from this fashion of approaching images I encourage you to take certainly one of my workshops via the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops. There are periodic 3-week on-line applications (6 classes), and this summer time there may be an in-person 1-week intensive that must be enjoyable for any artistic beginner, possibly if you happen to’ve plateaued, really feel such as you’re good at image taking, however need to push your self. Anyway, Thanks for listening.


Concerning the creator: Michael Rubin, previously of Lucasfilm, Netflix and Adobe, is a photographer and host of the podcast “On a regular basis Pictures, Each Day.” The opinions expressed on this article are solely these of the creator. To see extra from Rubin, go to Neomodern or give him a comply with on Instagram. This text was additionally printed right here.


Picture credit: Header picture from Depositphotos. All different photographs copyright © 2021 MH Rubin.



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