Photography and the Optical Unconscious

Book Pages: 392 Illustrations: 116 illustrations, incl. 20 in Published: May 2017

Art and Visual Culture > Art Criticism and Theory, Photography

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


"A diverse collection of essays and artists’ portfolios. . . . Overall, Photography and the Optical Unconscious is a compelling read, one that points to the significant amount of work remaining to be done with regards to the optical unconscious." — Shandell Houslden, TOPIA

"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." — Elspeth H. Brown, coeditor of Feeling Photography

"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." — Lisa Cartwright, coauthor of Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

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.

Table of Contents Back to Top
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
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-6901-1 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-6381-1
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