On Photographs & the Real
A chair takes on the bodies that sit in it. The cushions give, the fabric wears, the structure bends. Of course, each chair takes on each body differently. But say, for a moment, this chair here has only ever had my body on it. There would be a mark, an impression, on that chair: an image of me, as it were.
A keen reader of such things would be able to discern not just my weight but the distribution of my weight — pounds on each body sit differently, pooling here, thinning out there.
This reader of chairs and bodies could discern my posture, whether I slouch, hunch, cross my legs, lean on one buttock or the other. And, from that, a more vivid picture comes into existence: a man who weighs such and such, distributed in just this way, and who sits in such a way that he is more than likely depressed, content, contemplative, jumpy. An image emerges from the collaboration of my body with that chair.
And yet, needless to say, a lot has not been seen by the ass marks left on that chair cushion. There is not as much proof as there is evidence, traces of a life that are neither complete nor definitive. In rhetoric, we'd call it a metonymy, a mark that is continuous with my life.
All things take up the world. All things make their mark on other things according to the degree of complexity of the respective bodies, the terms of their engagement, and the role these marks play in the circulation of marks we call culture or society. For instance, we tend not to consider cushion indentations as meaningful.
Clothes, more intimate with bodies than chairs, wear us as much we wear them. The way a collar stretches, the torso sags and sleeves fray, the patterns of stain all testify to a life. Much as a press rolled over an etched plate forges a print on paper, a shirt takes on the contours of the wearer, making an impression, leaving an image of a sort. The way elbows on coat wear is in fact called memory.
A photograph is, in many ways, no different. There is a device — a camera — which, like a chair or shirt, is a way of taking on the world, creating an impression of life. A camera is technology that takes on light much as a chair takes on weight or a shirt takes on girth, sweat, and coffee. And just as a shirt with these stains reveals aspects of a particular life, the camera takes on the way light plays with those forms before its lens.
That light, like sweat, coffee, or a big ass, leaves a mark of a life. It's not complete. It's not a representation of reality. In a way, it's both more and less than that. It's not a reality as is. But nor is it just an image. A photograph is a piece of life itself, not an image of life itself. Just as this ass leaves that impression on that chair, this body in this light leaves this mark on that lens. The mark of life is material, palpable, visible. It is a metonymy of a life.
Metonymy is not synecdoche. Synecdoche is when a part stands in for a whole such as when a rancher says I have 20 head of cattle. The head stands in for the whole of the cow. Metonymy, on the other hand, is something that is continuous with the whole but doesn't speak for it per se — a stray pubic hair, for example, or a chocolate stain on my shirt.
We expect so much from photographs. Consider the online dating profile. We peruse picture after picture trying to size up a life, a smell, a sense, a future. We want so much for that photograph to tell us everything, to be a synecdoche that speaks for the whole of a person we've never met.
But, alas, that image is a metonymy. It is continuous with that person, no doubt. But as people are complex, as a life is essentially multiple and irreducible, that continuity can only tell you so much.
And yet what's amazing is that that image does indeed say a lot. It may or may not say much about how you'll get along with that person. But it's incredible how much life a photo conveys on its own, this continuous moment now severed from the whole. A smile, a twinkle in someone's eye, an alluring posture: they speak loudly, boldly, eloquently. Somehow, a camera collaborates with forms, light, and with being itself to bring you this sliver of life, this moment happening for eternity.
A woman's fetching smile or a guy's creepy looking gaze on OKCupid does not mean that woman is all that or that he's a creep. It means that at that moment, the camera, her form, his face, a moment of their being, and light conspired to make that picture. Which is incredible! I never cease to be amazed by photography. It seems like a miracle, the way this little machine — my phone! — can gather a bit of being into this discrete package.
A photograph is not a testament to the real. It is continuous with the real — as real as a stain on a shirt or an indent on a cushion.