Yesterday's Light

Images in Space and Time

Whistling Past the Graveyard (or, more “fun” with metaphors)


Following my last post, I was told a couple of times that my 3 historical examples of “visual metaphor” didn’t qualify because they don’t fit the definition.  They were simply “examples” of the subject matter pictured.  And that got me to thinking that maybe they were, in fact, bad examples and that my notion of “images as metaphor” was all wet.  The problem for me when that happens is that I go into research mode.  I started looking for anything I could find that explained (or defined) metaphors in general – something I thought I already understood – and more specifically, visual metaphor.  By the time I was finished, I knew a lot more about the subject than I ever wanted to.  So, even though I risk boring to tears anyone having the misfortune to read this, I think I can shed some light on the matter.

I don’t know if you watch TV or not, but I will unashamedly admit that I do.  We tend to watch a lot of news and we also like a number of regular TV dramas (like “ER”, “Law and Order”, “24”, “Criminal Minds”, and “House”).  “House” is one of my favorites.  If you’ve seen the show, you know that the lead character is probably one of the world’s greatest cynics.  His picture should appear in the dictionary under the word “curmudgeon”.  But he’s also, apparently, a lover of metaphor.  In the following exchange with a patient, he uses the experience of being a passenger on a plane as a metaphor for life.

House:  If you’re unhappy on the plane, jump out of it.

Patient:  I want to, but I can’t.

House:  That’s the problem with metaphors.  They need interpretation.  Jumping out of the plane is stupid.

Patient:  But what if I’m not in a plane?  What if I’m just in a place I don’t want to be?

House:  That’s the other problem with metaphors.  Yes, what if you’re actually in an ice cream truck, and outside are candy and flowers and virgins?  You’re on a plane!  We’re all on planes.  Life is dangerous and complicated and it’s a long way down.

In that exchange, you have the essence of metaphoric communication.  House is using one thing (being on a plane) to make a point about something else (life).  He’s taken two things that are essentially different and compared them, thus finding and emphasizing the one thing (or things) that is (are) similar.  If you can “see” the similarity, then the metaphor is effective.

So what is the definition of a metaphor?  As you might expect, that depends on where you look.  Most are variations of the following:

“A figure of speech in which a word or phrase that ordinarily designates one thing is used to designate another, thus making an implicit comparison”.

Or, “a device for seeing something in terms of something else”.

Or, “understanding and experiencing one thing in terms of another”.

Or, “a comparison between two things, based on resemblance or similarity”.

Or finally, this one:  “One thing conceived as representing another; a symbol”.

The thing is, when we’re talking about verbal metaphor (spoken or written), it’s all pretty straightforward stuff.  If the verbal communication includes a metaphor, it’s intentional.  There’s little or no ambiguity.  When Robert Frost wrote the poem, “The Road Not Taken”, the metaphor is clearly there, by design.  He didn’t write the poem and then, after it was finished, say “Oh, wait – I think there’s a metaphor in there somewhere”.  He consciously put it there.  He wasn’t actually talking about roads and we know he wasn’t actually talking about roads.

But with images, things become a little less clear.  In fact, visual metaphor appears to be a topic that hasn’t been addressed all that much.  There are a few treatments of the topic, however.  One of these, a book titled “Expanding Cognitive Linguistics to Pictures: Pictorial Metaphor in Advertising” (now there’s a title not likely to be seen on Oprah anytime soon), was written by Charles Forceville, a cognitive linguist with a strong interest in visual metaphors.  I’ve read some of his work that appears online.  It would be an understatement to say that it gets a bit “heavy”.  There is one quote, however, that I think is particularly pertinent.  In one of his papers he says:

“Metaphors are central instruments in cognition, and do not only manifest themselves in language but also in pictures and sounds.  What constitutes a metaphor, however, is partly affected by the medium in which it occurs” (italics are mine). 

If the “medium” is a photograph, how then does that affect what constitutes a metaphor?  If the image is not accompanied by some form of text, how do we determine what, if anything, it represents?  What thing, not directly seen, is it being compared to?

More specifically, if “Migrant Mother” is a metaphor, what does it symbolize?

migrant-mother Is it really just an “example of poverty”?  Maybe it is.  But if I were Dorothea Lange (or her publisher) and I wanted to simply show people what poverty looked like, I might have selected a different image from the camp (Lange took 6 of them).  I might, for example, have used the one having the widest angle, showing all 7 of her children huddled together in a small tent.  Or I might have shown more people, more tents, more evidence of hunger and despair.

But they picked this one.  They picked the image that showed two of her children with their faces turned away from the camera.  They picked the image showing a close-up of Florence Owens Thompson’s face, looking off into the distance, toward a future she could not see or comprehend.  They picked the one that, to me, literally radiates fear and quiet desperation.  This isn’t about poverty – it’s about survival.

Now, compare the Lange image with the one below, taken by Michael Ainsworth after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans.

katrina-imageThis mother and her 8 year old daughter were waiting for a bus to take them away from the Super Dome.  They had no idea where the bus would take them or what they would do when they got there.  They just knew that they had to leave.

These two images are worlds apart in terms of time and circumstances, and yet they elicit the same emotional response (in me, anyway).  Both show people, much like you and I, completely overwhelmed by forces they could not control or predict.  Their very existence hangs in the balance.

For me, that “constitutes” visual metaphor.  When a photograph becomes more than a visual record of an object or a place or an event, when it becomes a shared emotional experience that transcends those things, it “qualifies” as metaphor.


2 Responses to “Whistling Past the Graveyard (or, more “fun” with metaphors)”

  1. sjconnor

    It might on “Oprah” (a great lover of “shared emotional experience”), but… Your use of scare quotes around “qualifies” really says it all.

    I think the big question is, why are you so hung up on the word “metaphor”? It’s a literary term. Does it have a place in the visual arts? I rather doubt it. It seems to me that the term you’re looking for (or avoiding?) is “symbolic”. And I can understand your distaste for the word – it’s been wildly overused – but, it’s an accurate description of the photographs you’ve chosen.

  2. doonster

    A tricky subject, hard to grasp without good examples. I think “Migrant Mother” isn’t really a visual metaphor because she is not being used to stand for any particular concept, per se. Had the image been entitled “Poverty and Shame” then you’d have a metaphor handed to you on a plate.
    A great (non-photogrpahic) example of visual metaphor is the statue of Justice (blindfolded woman, scales, sword). The actual figure is a woman, but specifically used to denote an entire concept.
    Metaphor only exists if the subject depicted is used to stand for something completely different.


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