Photography and the Optical Unconscious

Photography and the Optical Unconscious

by Shawn Michelle Smith, Sharon Sliwinski

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Photography and the Optical Unconscious by Shawn Michelle Smith

Photography is one of the principal filters through which we engage the world. The contributors to this volume focus on Walter Benjamin's concept of the optical unconscious to investigate how photography has shaped history, modernity, perception, lived experience, politics, race, and human agency. In essays that range from examinations of Benjamin's and Sigmund Freud's writings to the work of Kara Walker and Roland Barthes's famous Winter Garden photograph, the contributors explore what photography can teach us about the nature of the unconscious. They attend to side perceptions, develop latent images, discover things hidden in plain sight, focus on the disavowed, and perceive the slow. Of particular note are the ways race and colonialism have informed photography from its beginning. The volume also contains photographic portfolios by Zoe Leonard, Kelly Wood, and Kristan Horton, whose work speaks to the optical unconscious while demonstrating how photographs communicate on their own terms. The essays and portfolios in Photography and the Optical Unconscious create a collective and sustained assessment of Benjamin's influential concept, opening up new avenues for thinking about photography and the human psyche.

Contributors. Mary Bergstein, Jonathan Fardy, Kristan Horton, Terri Kapsalis, Sarah Kofman, Elisabeth Lebovici, Zoe Leonard, Gabrielle Moser, Mignon Nixon, Thy Phu, Mark Reinhardt, Shawn Michelle Smith, Sharon Sliwinski, Laura Wexler, Kelly Wood, Andrés Mario Zervigón

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822372998
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 05/05/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 392
File size: 88 MB
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About the Author

Shawn Michelle Smith is Professor of Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the author of At the Edge of Sight: Photography and the Unseen and Photography on the Color Line: W. E. B. Du Bois, Race, and Visual Culture, both also published by Duke University Press.

Sharon Sliwinski is Associate Professor of Information and Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario and author of Mandela's Dark Years: A Political Theory of Dreaming and Human Rights in Camera.

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Photography and the Optical Unconscious

By Shawn Michelle Smith, Sharon Sliwinski

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2017 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7299-8




In his 1931 essay "Little History of Photography," Walter Benjamin offered the following phrasing to introduce his notion of an optical unconscious:

For it is another nature which speaks to the camera rather than to the eye: "other" above all in the sense that a space informed by human consciousness gives way to a space informed by the unconscious. Whereas it is a commonplace that, for example, we have some idea what is involved in the act of walking (if only in general terms), we have no idea at all what happens during the fraction of a second when a person actually takes a step. Photography, with its devices of slow motion and enlargement, reveals the secret. It is through photography that we first discover the existence of this optical unconscious.

Students of modernism have grown closely familiar with these words, and, after his partial rephrasing, with Benjamin's description of the optical unconscious in the 1936 essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility." What is less recognized, however, is that these same ideas would also have struck readers of the 1931 essay as commonplace. At this moment in the late Weimar era, modernists and popular advocates of the medium regularly claimed that photography surpassed and thus aided human vision. The examples of this are legion. Erstwhile Bauhaus professor and photo enthusiast László Moholy-Nagy famously wrote in 1927 that "the modern lens is no longer tied to the narrow limits of our eye; no manual means of representation ... is capable of arresting fragments of the world seen like this ... [or fixing] the quintessence of a movement," as in his picture of the dancer Gret Palucca, caught midair in one of her signature springs (fig. 1.1). According to Moholy, such photographic capacities "have allowed us to see beyond the specific instance" and made available an "objective vision" compelling us "to see that which is optically true." Similarly, the graphic artist Johannes Molzahn observed the surfeit of images in illustrated papers and declared that "it is the photo that continually informs us and suggests new phenomena." Gallerist Karl Nierendorf compared the camera to a microscope that "reveals whole systems of life in drops of water" and to "the instruments of the observatory [that] open up the infinity of the universe." Photographer Albert Renger-Patzsch contrasted the camera to older means of representation and declared that "photography works faster, and with greater precision and greater objectivity than the hand of the artist." For him as for Moholy, this notion of objectivity was implicitly linked with modern truth and a purity of vision. For all these observers, the medium had begun to realize new modes of perception and analysis that could be disseminated on a mass scale. Because of photography's inherent reproducibility, new ways of seeing and understanding could be made immediately available to mass audiences. This expanded mode of perception was thereby exponentially extending the laudable project of clear-sighted enlightenment.

But there were clouds rolling toward this utopian horizon, even for Benjamin. From the mid-1920s on, misgivings about photography's expanded role emerged in the long shadow of a profusion of images. At issue was the great abundance itself — the illustrated press being the chief culprit in this spike of imagery — and how the era's pictorial surfeit transformed human consciousness. Referring in 1927 to the "weekly photographic rations" that the numerous Illustrierten delivered, for example, Siegfried Kracauer famously worried that "the assault of this mass of images is so powerful that it threatens to destroy the potentially existing awareness of crucial traits." Ominously, Kracauer felt that "in the hands of the ruling society, the invention of illustrated magazines is one of the most powerful means of organizing a strike against understanding." His was a concern with photography's capacity for mass reproducibility, precisely the same thing that excited so many other Weimarera commentators.

But Kracauer also worried about the potential profusion of meanings produced by any single image, and the perceptual consequences of this cascade of significations for the experience of modernity. Increasingly, other observers also awoke to the capacity of one print to speak many wildly different things. Willi Münzenberg, publisher of the radical-left Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung (Worker's Illustrated Magazine, or AIZ), complained in 1931 that by employing "a combination of several pictures with their captions and accompanying text ... a skillful editor can reverse the significance of any photograph and influence a reader who lacks political sophistication in any direction he chooses." Of course, Münzenberg famously did this himself, as one can see in comparing what the politically centrist Das Illustrierte Blatt in 1929 framed as a rioter was depicted by the AIZ as a persecuted worker (figs. 1.2 and 1.3). A print drawn from the full negative seems to offer yet another nuance by showing the larger context of relative calm (fig. 1.4). As with others on the political extremes, Münzenberg was even willing to engage in outright photo-fibs. An AIZ front page from 1927 allegedly shows right-wing militia members participating in shooting exercises on the property of then interior minister Walter von Keudell (fig. 1.5). This picture raised such a stink that the magazine had to confess a few weeks later that, naturally, it was a montage, "as any child could see." But as the feature inside the issue went on to explain, this picture told a higher truth by employing cut-and-paste manipulations to reveal a deeper reality hidden beneath the surface of mere appearances.

Exactly what constituted photo veracity in the AIZ came into sharp relief four years later when playwright Bertolt Brecht stated flatly in its pages that mass-printed "photography, in the hands of the bourgeoisie, has become a terrible weapon against truth." Here was the dark underside of Weimar-era photo enthusiasm. While these commentators remained convinced of photography's liberating potential, they nonetheless identified two parallel phenomena that led to the hoodwinking and stultification of mass audiences at the very level of perception: too many images and too many meanings. For these observers, who used a photo and when it was taken mattered as much as what the image seemingly reported. No matter how objective these visions and their meanings seemed to be, and regardless of the irrefutability that this impartiality apparently confirmed, the photographic message was always contingent on the moment it was snapped and on the agenda of the person who delivered it. Moreover, its meanings were powered by mass-printed conveyances that assaulted in the form of a deluge.

In the following pages, I would like to suggest that Benjamin acknowledged these shortcomings when he published his "Little History of Photography" in 1931, the same year — not coincidentally — that Münzenberg and Brecht penned their now famous photo-misgivings. However, Benjamin chose not to stifle his burgeoning investment in photography's emancipatory potential for critical apperception. Instead he opted to nuance it. This he did by locating the revelatory agency of photography not just in the relationship between the camera and human perception made possible by the print, as Moholy had, but more specifically in the role played by the highly subjective realm of the unconscious, where contingency played the very most important role in perception. Like the more optimistic members of his Weimar-era cohort, Benjamin agreed that photography could access unseen worlds and report on the invisible to masses of people, thereby acclimatizing them to the shock experience of urban modernity. But he assigned this operation's unfolding to a realm where the conscious directives of ideology and reason held less immediate sway. Benjamin was therefore theorizing a deferral that saw photography's revolutionary disclosures work unencumbered on the raw — even primal — associations that make perception possible, much as he theorized for surrealism. Ultimately, he conceived this operation in part to help salvage, reclaim, and reinvent a medium whose emancipatory potential was being threatened by the twin blights of heavy proliferation and deep contingency in a modern environment already saturated with overpowering — even numbing — stimuli.

Photo-Inflation and Contingency

The context that helped drive Benjamin to his ideas about the optical unconscious was characterized by a surfeit of photographs that heavily determined everyday experience. Many at the time saw this phenomenon alternately as a flood, a marvel, a boom, a benefit, a shock, or a debilitating inflation. The advances in camera and image-printing technologies that made this excess possible had largely been developed before World War I. But confusing restrictions on the publication and mailing of pictures during the conflict, coupled with claims of paper shortages, largely sheltered Germany's everyday citizens from the practical implications of these advancements.

Not so after military defeat. Once Wilhelmine authority melted away in the Revolution of 1918–1919, vying political factions and commodity advertisers immediately pressed their points through innumerable magazines, leaflets, and postcards thickly larded with pictures. Many of these were photographs. Advertising commentator Ernst Bauer described this phenomenon as a colorful "papery flood" that swelled higher and higher as the revolution unfolded. "Berlin's streets," he explained, "debauched themselves in orgies of color while the buildings exchanged their gray faces for various excited masks. Every free space was ruthlessly covered up." The heavy deployment of so many "mental weapons," as the government's information chief described this printed matter, often caused as much disquiet as the revolution itself. In fact, for astute observers, the uprising to a large extent was its representation. Noting the plethora of political posters, banners, and postcards wallpapering Germany's urban corridors, commentator Hans Friedeberger concluded, "The street offers the picture of restlessness. It shines, luxuriates in colors, and appeals with a blood-warm expression of our turbulent times." For Friedeberger, to experience the fervor was at best to see its picture, particularly in agitating fragments.

Berlin's Dada movement reveled in the photographic character of this cresting wave, and correspondingly recast the revolution one year after its defeat as a space rife with screaming prints. In the movement's 1920 trade fair (Messe), the first full-scale photo posters ever made yelled their slogans toward photomontages that recast this papery flood as a stormy sea of emulsion. One of the most exciting things about Berlin's Club Dada was that it specifically saw the Weimar era's birth as a dizzying hail of representations, as much as bullets. And in this new sort of struggle, photography played a capital role in extending, enhancing, and agitating the human sensorium most effectively. It could shock audiences out of a wartime anesthesia induced, in large measure, by grand doses of soothing and reassuring images. Berlin's Dada movement sought to overturn this abuse of mass reproduction technologies by employing one of their most advanced forms, photography, to keep the revolution's pictorial assault alive.

As the republic surmounted its early challenges, which included hyperinflation, political assassinations, and a rightwing putsch, photography increasingly proliferated in its progressively well-populated and expanding home: the illustrated magazine. These periodicals began to boom after the stabilization of the country's currency in 1924. By 1927, the photo editor of the high-circulation Berliner-Illustrirte [sic] Zeitung (Berlin illustrated magazine) could write that a reader "traveled the world" through the pictures of a single issue. The summit of this photo-enthusiasm was reached with the famous Film und Foto Ausstellung (Film and photo exhibition) of 1929, which conclusively located photography's value in the medium's capacity to shape and extend perception. Photographs were no longer prized as handcrafted rarities, for what Benjamin would refer to as their aura. Such had been the case in the now-defunct pictorialist movement. Instead, their new worth came from their ability to enhance visual awareness, a capability that the medium's availability for endless reproduction and dissemination strongly accelerated. The photo-boom was on.

Yet by the same time in 1929, critics complained of what they quickly began to call photo-inflation. By this reckoning, there were simply too many pictures, and they were overwhelming human perception. Paul Westheim, editor of the art magazine Das Kunstblatt, referred to the consequences of this phenomenon in 1932 as Bildermüde or "image weariness," while historian Wilhelm Hausenstein complained that too many experimental photographs repeating the same vertiginous or closely framed views had become formulaic and visually numbing. As photo historian Olivier Lugon has explained, photo-inflation had led to a collapse in the photograph's value. Pictures had been overprinted like paper money and the presses now refused to stop spinning. Even vision itself increasingly seemed a devalued resource, susceptible to weakening or loss through overuse.

In this heady context arose the parallel and sometimes countervailing worry that photographic meaning itself had experienced a dangerous profusion. Any one print could mean a number of things depending on its caption and context. By this other understanding, image abundance had not in fact devalued photography or exhausted human perception, but it had instead begun to shape the human mind in dangerously misguided and unmanageable directions. Münzenberg's comments and strategies are representative of this concern. Considering the heated nature of the enthusiasm and anxiety around photography, and taking into account the very urgency of human perception that seemed at stake, it is no wonder that Benjamin, a keen observer of "the relationship between the human senses, consciousness and the social world," chose to intervene.

The Photographic Subject

As already noted, Benjamin's contribution to the highly public sounding off about photography worked with familiar notions of enhanced human perception. But it nevertheless offered something stunningly unique for its late Weimar time. To underscore its importance, I note one curious lacuna in all these discussions about the medium, be it about inflation or contingency. Despite the great and anxious loquaciousness about the relationship between photography and perception at this time, there was remarkably little writing that went beyond formulaic considerations, little thought that actually reflected on the consequences of photo-inflation for modern subjectivity. In other words, Weimar's tense photographic conditions failed to generate a comprehensive theory of the photographic subject. Such an account would have explained the medium's role in the formation of a radically altered human subjectivity, particularly as a mass or collective phenomenon. It is this, I believe, that Benjamin was on the verge of supplying when he broached the possibility of an optical unconscious in 1931.

To be sure, other commentators took small steps in this direction around the same time, and their efforts help reveal where Benjamin may have been heading with his "Little History of Photography." For example, before he condemned mainstream illustrated papers for reversing the meanings of the photographs they printed, Willi Münzenberg of the AIZ commented insightfully on how "photography works upon the human eye." According to his account, "What is seen is reflected in the brain without the need for complicated thought." This notion touches on the problem of subjectivity in that the photographic message is understood to bypass the area of consciousness that produces rational thought. Instead the photographic message works directly on a more primal zone of unfiltered perception. Like Münzenberg, Paul Westheim also focused specifically on the psychological consequences of photography's profusion. In his 1932 "Bildermüde" essay, he noted that "the human eye today is stuffed with image impressions daily, hourly. ... This kaleidoscope of constantly changing image impressions is altered so quickly that little in fact remains etched in our memory. Each image chases the next. ... The result is ... overstimulation. One might even say: the more contemporary man is given to see, the less he experiences in seeing. He sees far too much to be able to see consciously and intensely any more." For Westheim, photo-inflation forced too many changing pictorial impressions on the mind and short-circuited the possibility of conscious vision. Instead, as one might surmise, stunned late Weimar viewers stood agog before this tide of emulsion and rotogravure ink. They could only process pictorial information in some other region beyond consciousness, if at all.


Excerpted from Photography and the Optical Unconscious by Shawn Michelle Smith, Sharon Sliwinski. Copyright © 2017 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  vii
Introduction / Shawn Michelle Smith and Sharon Sliwinski  1
1. Photography's Weimar-Era Proliferatino and Walter Benjamin's Optical Unconscious / Andrés Mario Zervigón  32
2. "A Hiding Place in Waking Dreams": David Octavius Hill, Robert Adamson, and Walter Benjamin's "Little History of Photography" / Shawn Michelle Smith  48
3. Freud: The Photographic Apparatus / Sarah Kofman  75
4. "To Adopt": Freud, Photography, and the Optical Unconscious / Jonathan Fardy  81
5. The Politics of Contemplation / Zoe Leonard and Elisabeth Lebovici  93
6. Freud, Saturn, and the Power of Hypnosis / Mary Bergstein  104
7. On the Couch / Mignon Nixon  134
8. Vision's Unseen: On Sovereignty, Race, and the Optical Unconscious / Mark Reinhardt  174
9. Sligo Heads / Kristan Horton  223
10. Developing Historical Negatives: The Colonial Photographic Archive as Optical Unconscious / Gabrielle Moser  229
11. The Purloined Image / Laura Wexler  264
12. The Vancouver Carts: A Brief Mémoire / Kelly Wood  281
13. Vietnamese Photography and the Look of Revolution / Thy Phu  286
14. Shooting in the Dark: A Note on the Photographic Imagination / Sharon Sliwinski  321
15. Slow / Terri Kapsalis  339
Contributors  363
Index  367

What People are Saying About This

Feeling Photography - Elspeth H. Brown

"Making several important and timely interventions into theories of photography and modernity, this collection is the first extensive treatment of Walter Benjamin's concept of the optical unconscious in relation to photography, postcolonial theory, and race. An exciting and wonderful book."

Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture - Lisa Cartwright

"By developing Walter Benjamin's under-considered ideas about photography and the unconscious, this volume makes an important contribution to the history and theory of photography. And the inclusion of work by theorists, historians, and artists makes this book fresh and engaging, guaranteeing a wide readership among artists, art school students, and art history and media studies scholars."

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