In the context of philosophies of the imagination, Philosophy largely concerns itself with how images form in our minds, through memory for example, and how they can become creative. The consideration of the unconscious leads into a theory of imagination and how creative images are different to the perception of our world. Before Freud, the unconscious was considered to be where things not currently being thought about were stored.
Freud and the Unconscious
Freud challenges fundamental ideas of what it is to be human – rationality. Unconscious, suggests irrationality and a lack of control, more closely resembling animals than our previous conceptions of being human. The mind, according to Freud, consists of the conscious and unconscious, with the conscious being about perception and the external stimuli of the world, and the unconscious about instincts. The mind is thus a meeting point for two different kinds of energy. The conscious mind is about rationality, logic, time and space, patterns and structures and perception and imagination. The unconscious has no logic, is about feelings and desires, and is contradiction-free. There is no distinction between reality and the self and the external world, and no awareness of time.
For Freud, the imagination is about images produced by the mind (unfulfilled desires), fantasy (daydreams – conscious) and dreams (unconscious). The unconscious provides access to more creative forms of imagination that is quite different to perception. However, the unconscious is also the repository for repressed instincts and desires that have not been met.
Psychoanalysis provided the basis and inspiration for surrealism through:
- theory of nature and meaning of art
- theory of creativity
- key to interpreting artworks and artists (a tool of criticism) and
- radical theory of human nature that provides material as inspiration in art.
Freud’s approach to art is called pathography. He treats the artist as a patient, sees artwork as an expression of ambitious and erotic desires and the artist as having the potential to “disguise” those desires. Individual artworks can be used to understand pathologies of the artist such as Freud’s analysis of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne (1503) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Virgin_and_Child_with_Saint_Anne_painting_by_Leonardo_da_Vinci_-_Musée_du_Louvre_-_Paris,_France.jpg explained as the result of a childhood dream about a vulture. Furthermore, the Surrealist Movement, rejecting the rise of realism in the arts in the nineteenth century, saw Freud’s work as inspiration for the production of artwork. The surrealist artists reconsidered the value of imagination, located in the largest part of the mind. They developed a new aesthetic in ‘the marvellous’ as Andre Breton exclaims in his Manifestoes of Surrealism (1972):
“Let us not mince words: the marvellous is always beautiful. anything marvellous is beautiful, in fact only the marvellous is beautiful.”
In modern continental philosophy and in particular in Kant’s Transcendental Idealism, where reality is considered to be external and fundamentally inaccessible to us but structured by our minds utilising two a priori concepts: space and time. Psychoanalysis on the other hand, demonstrates a different way of structuring reality through the unconscious and the distortion of space and time. For example, The Persistence of Memory (1931) https://www.moma.org/collection/works/79018 by Salvador Dali is an example of the liquification of images and a depiction of the distortion of space and time. The surrealists use the characteristics of Freud’s primary processes, the unconscious, as the basis for their work in terms of:
- absence of negation or contradiction
- freedom, unbound movements of desire
- psychical reality rather than external reality – the unconscious not distinguishing between reality and the imaginary.
However, according to Freud, there is conscious control in surrealist’s artworks through the channelling of the unconscious, leading to an expression in reality, rather than pure expressions of the unconscious.
Reimagining through Sleep
Jonathan Crary’s book, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (2014), suggests that sleep and dreams provide a mechanism to rehearse alternative options to the relentless pace of living in the 21st century. He says that:
“It is possible that in many different places in many disparate states, including reverie or daydream – the imaginings of a future without capitalism begins as dreams of sleep.”
Sleep, according to Crary, provides a means through a regular period of respite from everyday waking, to rehearse or consider different realities in a safe place.
The exploration of the thinking of Freud in relation to the unconscious and dreams and Crary’s exposition of sleep in a 24/7 society provide me with threads from which I can develop insights into my photographic practice.
Relevance to my Practice
My photographic practice requires an engagement with my own being and, recognising and then capturing, the being of Skye. In order to do this, I try to access a non-conscious state, arrived at through intuitive use of the camera and focus on the object of my work. I describe it as a process similar to daydreaming where I step out of time, only to return at a future moment, after I have taken the shot. I step without in my practice. Philosophers such as Descartes, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Derrida have written about dreaming, meditative practice and near-death experiences where they describe a process of uncoupling from the dynamics of space and time – the two constructs necessary for categorical subsumption according to Kant (1992). Sleep and indeed daydreaming also allow us to uncouple from space and time and our dreams are not dependent on space or time.
One of the challenges of working in this way is that the images I produce can often be a surprise to me as they are a non-conscious product of the mind and have been non-consciously driven. Roland Barthes (1980) relates a similar surprise when he finally finds the image of his mother that he had been looking for and remembered from childhood. In the image he recognised not just a face but a reflection of her being through the depiction of her gentleness and kindness. As far as my practice is concerned, I believe it is important not to process out this element of surprise. The more the image surprises me the less processing I should do.
For me, I believe that there are two modalities of taking photographs, one that is conscious and deliberative and the second, where I engage a non-conscious state through a process similar to daydreaming or reverie, as described by Rousseau, Nietzsche and others in the context of walking. In addition, I use daily walking and reverie as a means to develop ideas in relation to my photographic practice.
I have much to reflect upon, and further reading to do before I decide whether these concepts and ideas have a coherence and relevance to the development of my photographic practice.
Barthes, R. (1980). Camera Lucida – Reflections on Photography. London, Vintage.
Breton, A. (1972). Manifestoes of Surrealism. Michigan, University of Michigan Press.
Crary, J. (2014). 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep. New York, Verso.
da Vinci, L. (1503). “The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne.” Retrieved 19 April 2021, from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Virgin_and_Child_with_Saint_Anne_painting_by_Leonardo_da_Vinci_-_Mus%C3%A9e_du_Louvre_-_Paris,_France.jpg.
Dali, S. (1931). “The Persistence of Memory.” Retrieved 19 April 2021, from https://www.moma.org/collection/works/79018
Kant, I. (1992). The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant. Cambridge UK, Cambridge University Press.