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by Donald Kuspit
Making a photograph -- a snapshot of a passing scene or the staging of a scene as though for posterity -- has usually been understood as an act of consciousness, what Henri Cartier-Bresson called a ”decisive moment” of consciousness, but I suggest that it has less to do with consciousness than the unconscious. It has to do with that ”critical part of rapid cognition known as thin-slicing” -- ”the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and behaviors based on very narrow slices of experience” -- those thin slices of experience we call photographs.

“Thin-slicing is part of what makes the unconscious so dazzling” -- and photographs so haunting and fascinating -- “but it’s also what we find most problematic about rapid cognition. How is it possible to gather the necessary information for a sophisticated judgment in such a short time?” -- in the blink of the camera’s eye, which seems to think without thinking, to refer to Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, The Power of Thinking Without Thinking?(1)

“The answer is that when our unconscious engages in thin-slicing, what we are doing is an automated, accelerated version” of reflection, prone to error and misunderstanding but convenient enough for the uncritical moment. A camera is an automated blink supplying that superficial bit of information called a photograph, which offers an image that seems like a sophisticated judgment or appraisal of reality -- all the more so when its formal or structural or systemic features are made more or less abstractly explicit, as in “arty” modernist photographs -- but in unconscious fact only skims from its surface the information necessary to secure and survive the specious present, and with that facilely suggests there is no past and future -- no passage of time, indeed, no time at all.

What seems like a timely moment, a sharply focused instant of time, instantly and automatically becomes a timeless moment -- time reified into timelessness, a mortal moment absolutized into immortality. It is as though the photograph gave us a glimpse of eternity, showed what the world would look like in eternity, offered an escape from time when all it does is distill time to its mercurial essence. This is why the photograph, however much it seems like a historical record, always betrays history: it is a poor guide to understanding the reality of the time when it was made. The photograph cognizes rapidly, but the results of its cognition are problematic, however intuitively convincing. But then it is not clear that it has to do with Jacques Maritain called “creative intuition,” the intuition of the Spiritual Unconscious or Preconscious, striving upwards towards comprehensive understanding, however Sisyphean and difficult the striving, or with the Animal or Automatic Unconscious, which is instinctive and inherently limited in intelligence and understanding, if the instinctive drives can be said to understand anything about the objects on which they fasten like beasts of prey.(2)

So what, then, is the psychic purpose of thin-slicing reality into a photograph? To defend against time by creating an illusion of timelessness -- many illusions, as the abundance of photographs and the ever more automatic speed of taking a photograph suggests, suggesting also the constant need to deny time. The photograph helps us live in unreality, and is in fact a kind of derealizing of the real, in the clinical sense of derealization: “an experience or perception of the external world as unreal, strange, or alien, as it were, a stage on which people are acting.”(3)

The photograph is a symptom of collective madness, but an existentially necessary madness, not to say a necessary self-deception -- a necessary mysticism. “The mystical is related to. . . the notion of suggestibility,” the psychoanalyst Peter Hartocollis tells us, and “mystical experience” involves “the sense of conviction that one finds in delusional states.”(4) Unconsciously, the photograph is experienced as “mystical,” in that it convincingly suggests -- deludes us into believing -- that we are looking at something timeless, even as it seems to inform us about a certain time.    

Photography is clearly the pre-eminent art of the age of the unconscious -- the most modern of modern arts. Baudelaire thought that photographers were “not artists, not naturally artists. . . not spontaneously artists,” but only wanted to “astonish the public” with engineered novelties. For him the camera was the creation of an industrial God who took revenge on imaginative Art by declaring that “photography and Art are the same thing.”

“Daguerre was his Messiah,” and he led the “multitudes” to the promised land of self-love: “our squalid society rushed, Narcissus to a man, to gaze at its trivial image on a scrap of metal. A madness, an extraordinary fanaticism took possession of all these new sun-worshippers.”(5) Clearly, the sun was no longer the age-old symbol of the light of spiritual enlightenment.

But, after all, photography also has its “origins. . . in the furthest depths of the soul,” that is the unconscious, and is thus, by Baudelaire’s own definition, imaginative, that is, “it produces the sensation of newness”(6) -- the sensation of timelessness, which always seems new and unexpected, for we all live and die in time, often personified in myth as old Father Time. The photograph suggests that we can never step in the stream of time twice, even as it deep freezes ephemerality, suggesting that to look into the camera’s eye is to look into Medusa’s eyes, which is why appearances in a photograph seem petrified -- as unmoving and dead as stone.

There are many photographs because one can never drop one’s guard against time, even though it sooner or later catches up with everyone, Narcissus or not. Photographs are constantly, even manically being produced, each a new finger stuck in the dam of Make-Believe built to keep time from drowning us, but perhaps we will drown in the relentless flood of photographs, forcing us to believe in the unrelenting reality of time.

DONALD KUSPIT is distinguished professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.

(1) Malcolm Gladwell, Blink, The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (New York and Boston: Little, Brown, 2005), 23

(2) Jacques Maritain, Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry (New York: Meridian Books, 1955), 78

(3) Andrew M. Colman, Dictionary of Psychology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 197

(4) Peter Hartcollis, Time and Timelessness: The Varieties of Temporal Experience (New York: International Universities Press, 1983), 170

(5) Charles Baudelaire, “The Salon of 1859,” The Mirror of Art: Critical Studies (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1956), 229-30

(6) Ibid., 235