“Why do you take the pictures you do?”


“Why do you take the pictures you do?” This was the question a dear friend, whom I hadn’t seen in years, asked me during a lunch we had recently at which I shared some recent photographs. Little did she realize it is precisely the question I’ve been asking myself and researching for decades. For a long time, the pictures I’ve made that satisfy me most fully are in the mode of a sort of hyper-realism based on close examination of ordinary realities encountered during my rambles through the world. You see, I’ve been a psychology professor for forty years and simultaneously an avid photographer. Rather than compartmentalize the two, I integrated them into a system I call Photopsychology – the psychology of photography. Decades of reading, writing about and teaching others about how photographs are infused with the personality of their makers brought me to some new material in this vein, which is the subject of this blog.

While making some space for new photography books on my crowded shelves, I came across a couple of old issues of Aperture magazine which simply couldn’t be thrown away without first looking through them. Aperture 131, published in the Spring of 1993, is devoted to the life and work of the German Photographer Albert Rengel-Patzsch, considered one of the earliest photographers of “things.” Accompanied by a critical-biographical essay by Donald Kuspit, this issue immediately riveted my attention as it seemed to speak directly to my own way of thinking about and making photographs.

I learned that one of Rengel-Patzsch’s favorite quotes was “…the hardest thing to see is what is in front of your eyes.” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe) This thought aptly opens the mind to the issue of seeing the world in aesthetic terms versus seeing the world with ordinary perception. Everyday seeing is practical, based on necessities, whereas Kuspit describes Rengel-Patzsch’s photographs as infused with a “pure visual joy in the concrete thing.”

The Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihali provided some insight into how that can happen in his explanation of a state of mind he called “flow.” He teaches that attention can be understood as a kind of “psychic energy…under our control, to do with as we please, and that “we create ourselves by how we invest this energy.” Taken together, these viewpoints provide insight into how realistic photographs, like Rengel-Patzsch’s and mine, concretize the investment of the energy of aesthetic attention to the details of things, becoming records of “a subliminal text of cryptic details that encodes an unconscious attitude to the reality it represents.” In other words, the photographer is a person who can perceive and make visible the hidden order of details. The key here is that the picture is an implicit acknowledgement and mobilization of the hidden order within the photographer, i.e., photographs are infused with the personality of their maker.

Kuspit, in his essay, draws upon an idea posited by the psychiatrist, Christopher Bollas, whose writings are new to me. Bollas, in his1987 book “The Shadow of the Object,” wrote about the “psychoanalysis of the unthought known.” Many photographers confess that they never know where their next photograph will come from. For years I have taught about the state of mind photographers engage when they are out in the field looking for pictures to bring home. It is an open and receptive state of mind, a kind of reverie, during which something in the world seems to reach out and prick you, choose you, commandeering your attention and drawing you to it. Once chosen in that way we rely on the vagary of intuition to guide us toward making the photograph that feels right. Intuition is difficult to define, but Bollas’s “unthought known” goes a long way toward revealing how it works.

When we make a photograph it comes out of an “aesthetic moment…of rapt intransitive attention” a moment involving “perceptual identification” with the thing (the object(s) in the photograph. Kuspit elaborates further, suggesting that identification with the object comes from being in the aesthetic moment and, borrowing from Bollas once again, that “the moment exists to facilitate” that identification. All of this leads to a feeling of excitement and joy although we are not able to say exactly what is happening at the time. But in this state of mind, during this way of seeing, the “intuition of the thing in its essential givenness” is awesome and vastly different from ordinary perception. Photographs are much more than simply factual records of people, places and things. As Kuspit puts it: “This undermines – indeed overturns – the ordinary, naïve reading of these photographs as matter-of-factly realistic.”

What is the stuff of this proposed identification? According to Bollas it derives from our earliest, pre-verbal memories that consist of experiences we encoded in the first year of life but never thought about consciously. The unthought known. But those unthought patterns are there. You don’t have to be a psychoanalyst to accept that when we are babies we are sentient even before we are able to speak or consciously comprehend the world we have entered.
All of this together supports and further informs the basic tenets of what I have learned from developing PhotoPsychology. They add other layers of validity and richness that are deeply affirming for me. Hopefully this synthesis of ideas has captured your interest as well and motivates you to make another visit to www.photopsychology.com for more blog posts about how we invest ourselves in our photographs.