Muellner_this book has no pictures abstract

Nicholas Muellner

Associate Professor, Cinema Photography and Media Arts

Park School of Communications, Ithaca College, USA

Paper Proposal for Representing The Unrepresentable

Title: This Book Has No Pictures (A Visual Documentary of Psychoanalysis)

This paper interrogates the relationship between psychoanalysis and photography from an unlikely perspective.  Over the past three years I have conducted extensive interviews with psychoanalysts and psychiatrists, seeking to understand and document the invisible visual content of their work with patients.  These interviews begin with the seemingly straightforward question: what do you see in your imagination when your patients talk to you?  From this starting point, I have accumulated both a catalog of detailed visual descriptions – verbal pictures – from the therapists’ imaginaries, and a series of often revealing narratives about the interpretive efficacy and challenges of these images within psychoanalytic work.  Thus, the material of this visual documentary is a collection of photographs without pictures: a portrait of a process that is both image-driven and innately immaterial.

My interviews have consistently reflected that, in the process of visualizing what patients tell them, analysts must not only interpret, but invent.  In this important, but often overlooked sense, psychoanalysts, like photographers, are image-makers in pursuit of revelation.  The criteria for evaluating documentary images have always been based in a discourse of direct description: which picture tells the most, and is the truest?  In practice, the wish for an aesthetic power, articulated in a culturally delineated language of form-as-narrative, most often overwhelms the desire for information.  In psychoanalytic work, however, the power of the image, as processed through ideas of condensation and displacement, tends to explicitly value affect over representational fact.  After all, to read a dream image literally is the work of amateurs and mystics, not psychoanalysts.

This paper asks two inextricably linked questions:

• What can the psychoanalytic production of mental images, as passed between patient and analyst, tell us about the possibilities of the photographic image?

• How does the visual language of photography, through which we so often see the world, construct and constrain the formal vocabulary of our mental lives, and what can its syntax teach us about psychoanalytic work?

This paper takes the somewhat unorthodox form of literary nonfiction, intercutting dramatized accounts of the interviews with autobiographical reflections on growing up above a psychoanalyst’s office.  From the basement entranceway, one door led to my father’s consulting room, the other to my improvised darkroom.