The first thing which springs to mind when considering this question is the ‘urban bus shelter’ shot, which I have come to think is something of a student trope – every blog should have at least one rendition of this evocative object. But when I looked for examples to use for review on this blog I was surprised to find very few on Google image search. I had been harboring the notion that these pictures were prolific, but perhaps that’s not the case. Perhaps the idea that they are commonplace has itself become a trope! The vandalised bus shelter stands in for a familiar representation of urban decay; it is shorthand for neglect and is readily recognised by most people.
But in order for the object or environment to function as a metaphor it must not be too literal. It helps if it is shown almost in isolation, without interference from competitors for attention. A distillation of the idea, a picture which embodies the essence of the message without laboriously spelling out every syllable. There should be room available for the individual viewer to exercise some imaginative hops of their own however, so that they can have a sense of ownership of the connections.
There must be some familiarity with the metaphor for it to function effectively – it must be within the experience of the viewer. If I am unfamiliar with the characteristically unpleasant smell of, say, an exotic fruit I am unlikely to grasp the significance of its inclusion in a deodorant commercial. This is where object metaphor can easily fail, where the link becomes just too tenuous to work properly, so it can be a fine balance between obscurity and familiarity. Another risk is over-use. Some object metaphors have become hopelessly clichéd, like the Cadbury’s flake and its phallic associations. This can be difficult to get away from – I am amused by the Melanie Safka quote, “If it’s longer than it’s wide, it’s phallic”
Photographers are hampered by the literalness of the camera function. It returns a very close approximation of what is put before it, so when it comes to photographing a feeling, for example, the painter is at a considerable advantage in having at his disposal the endlessly malleable qualities of paint. However the photographer can draw on the equally expressive vector of the metaphor by selecting objects which in isolation may appear to have no bearing on the emotion, but when seen in a particular context convey powerful meaning.
The photographic metaphor acts like a catalyst in generating meaning. It does not form part of the final product but is instrumental in its manufacture.