Can You Spot the Idioms in These Photographs?

A picture is worth a thousand words, as the cliché goes, but not all words create the most precise pictures. A test your professor promises will be a “piece of cake” is great, unless you’re imagining something with buttercream. A mechanic who totes a “bag of tricks” might fix your car, but he can’t exactly perform magic.

These expressions are idioms, meant to be interpreted figuratively. Photographer Gabriel Zimmer thinks it’s much more fun to do so literally. In his series Polysemantics, he takes the quirkiest English phrases at their word. “It makes you think about the way we use language,” he says.

Not that Zimmer considers himself a wordsmith. Growing up in New York City, he turned to crayons and eventually cameras precisely because he isn’t one (nevermind that his work has appeared in The New Yorker). Art, he says, “fills in the gaps where language fails me.”

He started Polysemantics in 2016, leaving no stone unturned in his hunt for peculiar idioms, phrases, and words. Turns out, they’re a dime a dozen, with an estimated 25,000 idioms alone in the English language. Many have origins in actual events or legends: History, for instance, is peppered with military leaders drawing actual “lines in the sand” for their bravest men to cross.

But as vivid as they are, Zimmer learned not all idioms make for great photos. He tried “splitting hairs” with an ax and his own tresses, but the effect was more horrifying than humorous. A brain he sculpted from ground beef and stuck in his freezer (“brain freeze”) came out “looking, literally, like shit.” He photographed the best in his Brooklyn studio against jewel-toned seamlesses, illuminating them with two or three speedlights, each capped with a thin sheet of colored plastic for a dramatic gradating effect.

The results are fun and pithy, sort of like emojis, and they highlight how people are always talking with images. Words and pictures don’t compete so much as keep each other company—like peas in a pod.


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