Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Visual Synecdoche

Over the past week or so I've been slowly making my way through the book Kertesz, by Michael Frizot and Annie-Laurie Wanaverbecq.  It's 359 pages long, with copious photographs and at times excruciatingly lengthy biographical details.  I've been savoring every page of image as well as text.

What has struck me most about Andre Kertesz is something that has been true about many great visual artists since the renaissance. Using the language of visual imagery, they can encompass a sense of the whole through poetically capturing a small but poignant piece of it. They visually imply the presence of something larger the way a verbal metaphor implies. In poetry, this is a figure of speech called synecdoche.  Here's one definition of it that I found on the internet at  Glossary of Poetry Terms for Writing & Reading Poems — :

A figure of speech in which a part is used to designate the whole or the whole is used to designate a part. For example, the phrase “all hands on deck” means “all men on deck,” not just their hands. The reverse situation, in which the whole is used for a part, occurs in the sentence “The U.S. beat Russia in the final game,” where the U.S. and Russia stand for “the U.S. team” and “the Russian team,” respectively.

I first learned about poetic figures of speech in high school many decades ago.  I think it was actually my Latin teacher who introduced me to them.  Litotes has stuck with me.  Synecdoche slipped away, and I had to recover it.

One of the best examples of synecdoche in the visual arts is the Kertesz's biographical piece about the Hungarian poet Endre Andy.  He photographed it 15 years after the poet's death.  All his images had to imply something about the poet, because the person was no longer present.

Another stroke of synecdochic brilliance is Kertesz's portrait of his mother, cropped down to her hands alone.

I believe all photographers, at their best, use synecdoche as they poetically express themselves visually.  They frame, edit, crop.  Intuitively, they occasionally create an image of a detail that metaphorically carries something much bigger on its shoulders. 

I realized I was doing this myself when I photographed an antique Chevrolet truck in my neighbor's driveway. I took one conventional frontal shot, just to document the vehicle.  Then I focused in on the details.  It's the details, in my opinion, that capture the essence of this truck.  I don't have the audacity to compare myself to Kertesz.  On the contrary, I offer these images simply to illustrate that visual synecdoche is within the grasp of everyone with a camera. And many of us do it naturally and instinctively because it produces interesting photographs.

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