Photopsychology: an Overview

 Prof. Joel Morgovsky, (retired)


The origins of photography and modern psychology are rooted in temporal proximity. They developed in parallel during their early years, but by the late 19th century psychiatrists began exploring ways to employ the new medium in clinical settings. The impulse to use photographs for therapeutic purposes, traceable to 1856, continues to the present. Photoanalysis (1973) and PhotoTherapy (1999) are two representative systems for using family snapshots as exploratory tools in psychotherapy. Psychology has shown less interest in photographs as direct reflections of their makers’ thoughts and perceptions: as artifacts of the makers’ personalities. It was photographers themselves, joined by art critics and museum curators who produced an abundant literature on the self-expressive natures of photographs. Beginning in 1983, this author began formulating a system now called reading pictures to describe how photographs are coded with personal meaning and, by employing several mindsets, those pictures can be decoded. He is chairing a committee on photography and psychology for Division 1 and seeks new committee members

Parallel Development

The origins of photography and modern psychology are rooted in temporal proximity (1837 and 1879 respectively.) They each grew rapidly and in parallel during their earliest years, but by the late 19th century psychiatrists began exploring ways to employ the new medium for assessment and other clinical purposes. Louis J. D. Daguerre was successful in making a permanent recording of a camera image in 1837 thereby establishing the basis for modern photography.

It was a special time of rising inventiveness and intellectual energy that spawned creative breakthroughs in many areas of inquiry.  Photographers in the decades after 1837 applied themselves mainly to solving technical problems; improving the cameras, lenses, plates and emulsions. They also searched for new applications for photography.

Perhaps because of the urgent need to improve their tools, photographers did not begin to think critically about the subjective, expressive nature of pictures as opposed to their objective realism until the middle of the 20th century. Since then a robust literature has grown up around photographic criticism and photography’s place in the art world at large. That literature both describes and begins to analyze photographers’ individual ways of seeing and articulate photography’s inherent self-revelatory essence.

During that time, psychologists and psychiatrists also wrote about and used photography for a variety of clinical purposes to varying degrees. But in spite of the affinities between photography and psychology, there is not a large-scale effort from either side to identify the many points of contact and interaction between them. Photography itself and the photographic process as a whole has not been taken up as subjects of systematic, deliberate scrutiny within psychology. PhotoPsychology exists to fill that void.

For several decades photography and psychology developed along parallel lines aimed at establishing their own basic principles, tools and techniques. For photographers, this meant improving tools of the trade, while in psychology the early “schools” were debating what should be the proper subject matter and research methods for the new science. A very early example of the nexus between photography and psychiatry comes from the work of Hugh W. Diamond who in 1856 presented a paper before the Royal Society entitled “On the Application of Photography to the Physiognomic and Mental Phenomena of Insanity.” (Gilam, 1976) This point of contact between photography and psychology is among the earliest known and set the stage for what became a relatively small but long association of photographic clinical applications.




Modern Clinical Applications

It is informative to examine several traceable modern remnants of the impulse to use photographs for therapeutic purposes. Of those, the earliest is captured in Photoanalysis: How to Interpret the Hidden Psychological Meaning of Personal Photos by Robert U. Akeret, a psychoanalytically trained psychologist (Akeret, 1973). Photoanalysis was a system for studying family photographs in order to learn more about the interpersonal dynamics that shaped a person’s psyche during their growing years. The book jacket claimed that

“Photoanalysis will turn your family album into a fascinating new world – familiar, yet freshly revealed through your newly sophisticated eyes, enabling you to enjoy long-forgotten incidents; pinpoint dramatic changes in your life; correct distortions about yourself and others.” (Akeret, 1973)

The notion of employing family photographs for therapeutic purposes persists and can clearly be seen in the work of Judy Weiser, M.Sc., Ed., a Registered Art Therapist and Psychologist from Vancouver, Canada. Her system, called PhotoTherapy, uses snapshots and family photographs as catalysts for therapeutic conversations. She maintains the PhotoTherapy Center as a resource for those who are curious about using photography in this way.

“Most people keep photographs around, without ever pausing to really think about why. But, because personal snapshots permanently record important daily moments (and the associated emotions unconsciously embedded within them), they can serve as natural bridges for accessing, exploring, and communicating about feelings and memories (including deeply-buried or long-forgotten ones), along with any psychotherapeutic issues these bring to light. Counselors find that their clients’ photos frequently act as tangible symbolic self-constructs and metaphoric transitional objects that silently offer inner “in-sight” in ways that words alone cannot as fully represent or deconstruct. (Weiser, n.d.)

Another Canadian clinical practitioner, Joel Walker, M.D., modified the paradigm and used ambiguous photographs of his own making as projective stimuli to elicit protocols used for deep personality assessments in the tradition of Rorschach and the TAT. Four of his photographs were standardized as part of a kit called The Walker Visuals.

“…Walker developed a kit incorporating the four images evoking the most powerful responses. Known as The Walker Visuals, this kit continues to be used in psychotherapy worldwide, and Walker is considered a pioneer in what is known as phototherapy. Overall, Walker finds that the images are most effective for people who have difficulty verbalizing or dealing with difficult topics such as post-traumatic stress or incest.” (Jacobs, n.d.)

The tradition of using photography for therapeutic purposes continues to this day and has several variations. Some practitioners use photographs of their clients to help them deal with a variety of self-image issues ranging from disfiguring surgeries (Jo Spence) to eating disorders (Ellen Fisher Turk.), for example.

Seeking Broader Connections

Psychology has shown less interest in photographs as direct reflections of their makers’ thoughts and perceptions: as artifacts of the makers’ personalities. By the middle of the 20th century, however, that view of photography was already well established and described by luminaries of the art world such as John Szarkowski. In “Mirrors and Widows: American Photography since 1960,” he described a continuum of realist and romantic concerns of contemporary photographers.

“The distinction may be expressed in terms of alternative views of the artistic function of the exterior world. The romantic view is that the meanings of the world are dependent on our own understandings. The field mouse, the skylark, the sky itself do not earn their meanings out of their own evolutionary history, but are meaningful in terms of the anthropocentric metaphors that we assign to them. It is the realist view that the world exists independent of human attention, that it contains discoverable patterns of intrinsic meaning, and that by discerning these patterns, and forming models or symbols of them with the materials of his art, the artist is joined to a larger intelligence. [T]he word romantic is used here as a term that suggests the central and indispensable presence in the picture of its maker, whose sensibility is the photograph’s ultimate subject, and the standard against which its success is measured.” (Szarkowski, 1978)

Finding similar perspectives in the professional psychological literature — on self-perception through photographs rather than on the therapeutic possibilities of photography — is considerably more difficult. The late Stanley Milgram may have been on the verge of initiating research on this very subject in 1975 when he wrote “The Image Freezing Machine” for the Bulletin of the American Society of Magazine Photographers. (Milgram, 1977)

“The job of the photographer and that of the psychologist interested in photography are very different. The photographer seeks to capture a particular moment on film; the psychologist tries to explain why the photographer is taking the picture, and how motives, perceptual processes, and emotional factors come into play. He tries to do this through research, conducting experiments, and formulating questions open to inquiry. It is odd that Eastman Kodak spends vast sums on research in film chemistry, but so little research has been carried out on the larger social and psychological processes of photography.” (Milgram, 1977)

In 1983, this author began speaking at professional conferences about the potential usefulness of photographic analysis for describing personal characteristics of the photographer directly (Morgovsky, 1983). Rather than using family photographs made by someone other than the client, the analysis I propose is based on careful scrutiny of pictures made directly by the client. This approach is called “Reading Pictures.” At the American Psychological Convention in Toronto in 2003, Franklin, Formanek, Blum and I presented a symposium entitled “Lens and Psyche: Psychological Meanings of Photography.” A central goal of that presentation was to open conversations about points of contact between psychology and photography that have not yet been fully articulated. Among the issues identified in that session were the role of photographs in the psychology of everyday living; analyses of conceptual interactions between photography and psychology historically; and reading pictures.

Founding Principles of Reading Pictures

Both John Szarkowski and Stanley Milgram recognized, as do I, that photographs are infused with the personal, subjective experience of the photographer as well as information about external, objective realities. Psychological processes such as selective attention, unconscious motivation, projection and cognitions about self and the world coalesce at the moment of picture taking. Understood in this way, photographs are objects to be analyzed and decoded to extract both the objective and subjective messages.

There are several strata of camera users. Innocents are those legions of picture takers using cameras to record life’s special moments without ever thinking of themselves as photographers. Amateurs, on the other hand, is a term used refer to the hundreds of thousands of camera users who belong to photographic organizations, love photography, and work purposefully to become proficient in the medium. Mature photographers, lastly, are masters of the craft who systematically use the medium for personal self-expression. The decoding process at each level is challenged by different degrees of articulateness. Innocents are barely able to express themselves through imagery while amateurs are generally more successful but often struggle to find their own “voices.” Mature photographers are more eloquent, their pictures operating like the visual equivalent of poetry

Given that photographs carry imbedded, coded information about the people who made them, it follows that viewers can learn to extract that information and “read” it back out. Reading Pictures is a process similar to the thematic interpretation of traditional projective protocols. Similar because it is a systematic process for decoding the dual messages in photographs involving the application of six mindsets called overcoming the illusion of reality(OTIR); the rule of no accidents (RNA); free association (FA); purposeful use of the attribution process (AP); thematic analysis (TA); and genre and skill level (GSL). Taken together, these mindsets contribute to a new way of looking at photographs that enriches the general experience and simultaneously suggests new professional applications for photography.

(See Figure 2)



Recognizing that much remained to be done to identify how psychologists use and understand photography, Division 1 of the American Psychological Association established the Committee on Photography and Psychology. Composed of APA members who were also devoted photographers, the committee was charged with forming a community of psychologist-photographers; collecting and organizing professional and non-scientific publications relevant to its subject matter; organizing and mounting a photographic exhibition by its members that will illustrate the committee’s theme; and writing and publishing new articles describing the many past and present points of contact between photography and psychology.

To those ends, the Committee created a photographic exhibition titled “Psychologists in Focus: Seeing Global Diversity” which was organized and mounted at the Callahan Center at St. Francis College during the 18th Greater New York Conference on Behavioral Research in November 2006. That exhibition featured pictures by several international psychologists from APA Division 52. Some themes emerging from the collected images included the use of photography for social justice, in trauma intervention, and for building bridges between cultures. Described as “an exhibition where psychologists using photography share their views of the world and also reveal themselves” It served as a preliminary model for what the Committee on Photography and Psychology could accomplish on a larger scale. Together with the APA symposium in 2003, this exhibition served as a launching pad for three more exhibitions of Psychologists in Focus. The Committee is no longer active, but it served to ground PhotoPsychology and Reading Pictures firmly within the nation’s largest association of professional psychologists.

(Updated in 2015)


Akeret, Robert U. (1973) Photoanalysis. New York, NY: Peter H. Wyden, Inc.

Franklin, M.B., Formanek, R., Blum, E.J., Morgovsky, J. (2003, August) Lens and psyche: Psychological meanings of photography. Symposium conducted at the 111th annual convention of the American Psychological Association, Toronto, Canada.Gilam, S. (Ed.). (1976). The face of madness: Hugh W. Diamond and the origin of psychiatric photography. Secaucus, NJ: The Citadel Press.Jacobs, N. (n.d.). Retrieved January 9, 2007, from http://www.medhunters.com/articles/aPictureUnleashesThousandWords.html Milgram, S., (Sabini, J., Silver, M. Ed.) (1977). The individual in a social world: Essays and experiments. New York, NY, McGraw-Hill, Inc.

Morgovsky, J. (1983). Noses on our faces: The non-use of photography in psychological research and practice. In J.E. Shorr, G. Sobel-Whittington, P. Robin, & J.A. Connella (Eds.), Imagery (pp. 229-234). New York, NY, Plenum Press.

Szarkowski, J. (1978). Mirrors and windows: American photography since 1960. New York, NY: The Museum of Modern Art. Walker, J. (1986). The use of ambiguous artistic images for enhancing self-awareness in psychotherapy. Arts in Psychotherapy, 13:3, 241-248. Weiser, J. (1999). PhotoTherapy techniques: Exploring the secrets of personal snapshots and family albums. Vancouver: PhotoTherapy Centre Press.Weiser, J. (n.d.). Retrieved January 9, 2007, fromhttp://www.phototherapy-centre.com/home.htm

This overview of PhotoPsychology was originally published  as:

Photography on the couch: the psychological uses of photography, The General Psychologist, Winter/Spring 2007, 42(1), 27-30. http://www.apa.org/divisions/div1/news/Winter-Spring2007/Winter-Spring%202007%20TGP_web.pdf


Table 1

Important dates and events in the histories of photography and psychology.



Event Importance
1837 L.J.D. Daguerre fixes a camera image on metal plates Modern photography begins
1856 Hugh W. Diamond presents a paper before the Royal Society on the use of photography in the practice of psychiatry First point of contact between photography and psychiatry.
1879 Wilhelm Wundt establishes the first laboratory for the scientific study of consciousness. Modern psychology begins.
1973 Robert U. Akeret publishes Photoanalysis Establishes the use of family photographs in psychotherapy
1977 Stanley Milgram writes a series of articles on the psychological dimensions of photography. An early statement from within psychology that photographs carry information about their makers.
1978 John Szarkowski publishes “Mirrors and Windows” The catalog for an important photographic exhibition distinguishing between the objective and subjective nature of photographs.
1983 Joel Morgovsky presents “Nose on our faces” at Yale University The first formal presentation on what would become “reading pictures.”
1986 Joel Walker publishes the Walker Visuals. The first use of photographs as ambiguous, projective stimuli for clinical use.
1999 Judy Weiser publishes on PhotoTherapy. Perhaps the first of several techniques loosely named phototherapy.
2003 Franklin, Formanek, Blum and Morgovsky present Lens and Psyche at the 111th APA convention. The first symposium identifying several points of contact between photography and psychology
2006 “Psychologists in Focus: Seeing Global Diversity” The first exhibition of photographs exclusively by psychologists. Presented at St. Francis College, Brooklyn, NY