THE SUBCONSCIOUS OF THE CAMERA
Reprinted by courtesy of the author and the editors of PHOTO MAGAZIN. The article originally appeared in July 195 5, in German.
It is quite possible that the mere sight of this heading will produce violent reactions, probably in the form of explosive language. What ever next! Our dear camera, beloved by us just because it seemed to be the least susceptible to inhibitions and complexes! Contrary to our own mental shortcomings, the camera's performance is unaffected by moods, by climate, by frost or heat. However, it would be rash to conclude that this complex piece of machinery is totally void of a subconscious. If it did not have a subconscious, then the mystery of some pictures would only deepen, because there are many pictures which are a mystery even to the photographer who took them. I mean those pictures which make their authors sit up and take notice, which — in a manner of speaking — make them open their eyes. Make them open their eyes despite the fact that they had their eyes open all the time, and earnestly determined not to miss a thing.
In the first place, there are those snapshots of which even the photographer can not explain how they were made. Something happened, something takes place on a holiday, a journey, somewhere in the mountains or the country, anywhere where the camera was given a chance. Although most of these shots were nothing but shots at random — and nobody expected them to be anything else-— there may be one among them in which the veil is lifted from the surface of familiar subjects and some mysterious motivating force is laid bare.
What has happened ? Neither the photographer nor his subconscious had any part in this miracle. How did it happen? One is tempted to say that it was nothing but a stroke of luck, but this is only a roundabout way of admitting that we can not think of any rational explanation. Personally, I should like to find the explanation for this rare occurrence in what I will term ''the subconscious of the camera.’’ This term appears to be the more apt since there was no other active element involved. The photographer allowed the camera to exercise its own power, he gave it its head by shooting in a devil-may-care manner. Well, the devil apparently, cared and turned up in the form of an almost epochmaking picture. Every good snapshot is basically anonymous, the photographer being nothing but its chance discoverer. Nevertheless, it is this type of shot which is published all over the world, bringing unlooked for fame to its bewildered perpetrator.
Some photographers seem to be singled out by fate, since they seem to have a series of such discoveries. In all fairness it may, however, be suggested that these photographers may have developed a special sense of the right moment at the right occasion from which the subconscious of the camera benefits. And, by the way, the right occasion need not be a sensational one!
The second case is that of a photographer who tries hard to give form and content to a face, a landscape, an event. He wrestles with the subject, he studies, he waits and watches and is determined to know what he is doing. Still — when the picture comes, whatever the camera produces does not even come close to the dimly sensed, subconscious image in the photographer’s head. The photograph is not what it ought to have been ! And in a fit of despair the photographer starts shooting at random.
He starts attacking from various angles, and in different lights, he shoots madly and wildly and — if he is lucky — he will find among the rubbish THE picture. Although it is not the thing which was visualized, it is "the picture.” And this is the point I want to emphasize — it may be even totally different from what he set out to do; but, nevertheless, however, it is without doubt "the thing.” Again, one could say: "a lucky break” but as pointed out before . . .
I believe it was François Mauriac who said that he was dissatisfied with the heroes of his novels when they tamely submit to act in the way prescribed by him. He wants them to rebel against him, to go their own way against his wishes, to assume a life of their own, as only then could he be sure his work was good. To me it would seem a good thing if a man’s camera would start a rebellion against him. It might be a good thing if the camera were to oppose him with its own subconscious in order to surprise and convince him of its power. Then, out of nowhere, the good pictures appear as if out of the blue. It is possible that a good photographer is merely the one who gives his camera a chance to rebel. Of course, it is by no means easy to stage a camera rebellion.
It is now up to you to draw the right conclusion: you can either dismantle your camera to find its subconscious or start shooting recklessly in the hope that IT” will come one day, when at last the camera has begun to revolt.