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Relationship Between Photography Art And Psychology Photography Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 4650 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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I believe that great art and photography can be produced as a result of psychic energy created from repressed drives and instincts being effectively sublimated into a creative activity. I also believe that a great deal of art created is a result and expression of what Freud referred to as the Death Drive. Furthermore I believe that increased levels of psychic energy and tension can be linked to the production of great art.

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Freud’s death drive theory was first revealed in his 1920 essay Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Feud formulated this theory after working closely with patients suffering from severe trauma. Throughout the First World War Freud spent a great deal of time working with and observing the behaviour of the soldiers who had returned from the battlefields and trenches. Many of these soldiers were suffering from “Traumatic War Neuroses” (which is now referred to as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). Freud observed that the soldiers often had a tendency to dream, obsess, mentally repeat and in some severe cases re-enact the traumatic events they had witnessed. This obsessive attachment to the trauma seemed to contradict Fraud’s previous essay ‘The Pleasure Principle’ which suggests that the individual is constantly seeking to maximize his or her own pleasure. Freud suggested that the mind is split into three distinctive groups. Firstly we have the conscious, which is home to those thoughts and perceptions of which a person is fully aware. Secondly we have the pre-conscious, which is where we store our knowledge and memories and thirdly we have the unconscious, which is material that cannot be made available voluntarily such as fears, unacceptable sexual desires, irrational wishes, shameful experiences, selfish needs, immoral urges and violent motives. The three layers of personality are often portrayed as a mental iceberg, which is used to illustrate the incredible size of the unconscious.

It is important to understand that according to Freud the death drive is part the id. The id is the most instinctive and primitive part of a person’s personality and is the system we come equipped with at birth. According to Freud’s essay ‘The Pleasure Principle’ the id does not know right from wrong, it has no perception of morals, values or standards it simply seeks to maximise its own pleasure. The ego begins to develop after birth as the child begins to interact with their environment. The ego operates on the reality principle, which is survival orientated and prevents the person from doing anything that is overly detrimental. The super ego develops later as a result of society’s values, morals and standards being passed onto the child through interaction with other people and adults. The super ego is the part of the personality that strives for perfection and works in contradiction to the id. Because the id and super ego are so dramatically opposed it falls on the ego to act as the middleman. The ego must satisfy the id’s primitive impulses without offending the super ego’s moral character whilst also taking into consideration the reality of the situation.

Human beings are torn between two opposing instinctive drives. On the one hand we have the Eros (the life drive). The Eros is a creative drive that promotes and supports harmony, reproduction, sexual connection and preservation of both the self and the species. On the other hand we have the Thanatos (Death Drive). The Death Drive is self-destructive and instinctively seeks aggression, compulsion, repetition and obliteration. Freud believed that the Death Drive is a person’s drive towards death and the wish to return to an inanimate state.

There are more socially acceptable ways of expressing the creative and sexual needs of the Eros without offending the moralistic super ego. It is the Death Drive’s destructive and aggressive characteristics that are more difficult to express. This could result in mindless aggression, masochism and hate.

Because the ego has such a difficult time satisfying the impulses of both the id and the super ego it uses tools often referred to as ‘Ego Defence Mechanisms’ to reduce anxiety and protect self-esteem. These defence mechanisms include denial, displacement, intellectualization, projection, reaction formation, rationalisation, regression, sublimation and suppression.

The ego defence mechanisms are used to push something that causes you anxiety into the unconscious. Freud believed that any psychic energy that is repressed would later have to emerge in one way or another. Freud stated that the psyche works to get rid of this energy in three ways. The first is catharsis, which will discharge the psychic energy through unconscious impulses such as laughter and crying. Sublimation is the second method that the psyche uses to channel the psychic energy. Sublimation converts the instincts and impulses to allow the person to express them in a way that is acceptable to the super ego “write books, paint pictures, build bridges, do research, learn mathematical equations and so on” (Nye – 1999 – pg 14) .If you cannot sublimate enough it can seriously affect your mental health. The displacement of the suppressed instincts then takes the form of the third method, which is neuroses. The neurosis is revealed in the form of symptoms. These symptoms work to reduce the psychic tension but are also detrimental to the person. These symptoms could manifest themselves in many forms such as depression, phobias, obsessions, denial and psychosis. This is why art is often used as an alternate therapy. The psychic tension is encouraged to manifest itself into something creative rather than letting it quietly fester into symptoms.

Of the three defence mechanisms sublimation is the one that interests me the most. Sublimation is the mechanism that Freud believed could offer an overall explanation for artistic talent and the production of great art “Since artistic talent and capacity are intimately connected with sublimation we must admit that the nature of the artistic function is also inaccessible to us along psychoanalytic lines” (Clark 1965 – pg165).

Freud’s essay on Leonardo da Vinci illustrates his theory regarding sublimation and its connection to artistic creativeness and genius. It is popularly believed that Leonardo da Vinci was homosexually inclined. He never married and was in fact charged with the act of sodomy twice in 1476 but was later released and the case dropped due to a lack of witnesses. Although anonymously accused of the act many of Leonardo’s contemporaries also believed him to be homosexual, Freud also believed this.

It is the Oedipus complex that Freud believed could explain Leonardo’s homosexual inclinations. According to the Oedipus complex small children whilst in the Oedipal phase of libidinal and ego development (between the ages of three and five) harbour unconscious drives and feelings which centre around the complete possession of the parent of the opposite sex, in the case of a male child the mother would become the subject of this fixation. The child would then be in direct competition for the mother’s affection with the father who at this point according to the child has become an intruder in the relationship. This would at first lead to conflict but the child soon realises that the father is bigger and in a position of authority. As the child then begins to recognise that the mother loves the father he wants to emulate his father’s masculine traits and behaviour in order to become more like him to earn favour with his mother.

It is interesting that the Oedipus complex takes it name from the Greek mythological charter Oedipus who kills his father and marries his mother. Freud’s views on this character were sympathetic he stated;

“His destiny moves us only because it might have been ours – because the oracle laid the same curse upon us before our birth as upon him. It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulses towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father” (Freud 1889 p296)

Leonardo was an illegitimate child, later adopted by his father and brought up in his fathers household.

“There is no historical record which indicates what kind of relationship Leonardo may have had with his mother or his step mother, or which tells us what kind of people they were. Nor is it known at what age Leonardo was removed from his mother to be brought up by his step mother and father” (Storr 1999 pg75/76)

According to Freud’s theory regarding the Oedipus complex if Leonardo did not have a sufficient mother figure he would have had no need to emulate his father’s masculine traits and behaviour. This is what led Freud to conclude that Leonardo was homosexual.

Being homosexual, and not being able to express himself openly would have been a great cause of stress and anxiety for Leonardo. This stress and anxiety was repressed into his unconscious and could have ultimately led to mental heath symptoms had he not been able to sublimate it so effectively. Freud believed that Leonardo was sublimating his sexuality into something more appropriate. The suppressed drives and instincts of Leonardo’s id were being sublimated through his creativity so effectively that he was able to create some of the worlds most amazing art works and inventions. The irony of Freud’s theory is that if Leonardo had been allowed to be openly gay he would not have created this work.

So what characteristics reveal the presence of the death drive and when is the death drive recognizable in art? I believe that the death drive can be observed in the work of many great artist and photographers. Common physical manifestations of the death drive in art include such bleak and morbid imagery as the grim reaper, skulls, blood, crows and hooded figures, but the manifestation does not always appear in such a literal way. The death drive is often expressed in works of art through subliminal and symbolic methods. Freud interpreted art in a similar way to how he interpreted dreams “It was natural that he should apply the same technique of interpretation to works of art as he did to dreams, phantasies and neurotic symptoms”. Just like dreams Freud believed that art is an expression of unconscious. The Death Drive cannot always manifest itself overtly in art. Its representation is often symbolic as the super ego would be damaged by anything that society deems a taboo or unacceptable.

Although Freud’s theory regarding the interpretation of dreams was not an aesthetic one, I believe that the connection between what a person dreams and what is expressed by the subconscious during the process of sublimating psychic energy into a creative form draws many similarities and could indeed be analyzed in a similar way. Although the Freudian analysis of dreams focuses more on how the subconscious deals with and associates with our memories and emotions I think the same analysis can be used to look at how our subconscious deals with and expresses these same memories and emotions physically.

One of the most obvious examples of an artist that depicts the death drive in his artwork is Damian Hirst. Hirst who has been described by a London art critics as the “hooligan genius of British art” seems to have an unhealthy obsession with death, his work is famously dark and notoriously unpleasant and morbid. Death, destruction and imagery related or connected to mortality are reoccurring themes in a great deal of Hirst’s work, so much so that his work is often instantly identifiable purely from its subject matter.

Hirst became a household name after exhibiting a series of dead animals that included a fourteen-foot tiger shark a sheep and a cow that were all preserved in a specially created formaldehyde solution. The title of the exhibition “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” seems to suggests that you cannot witness or experience your own death, an interesting title given the contents and the nature of the exhibition. “Hirst’s work is an examination of the processes of life and death: the ironies, falsehoods and desires that we mobilize to negotiate our own alienation and mortality.” By preserving and then exhibiting these dead animals Hirst forces his audience to confront death head on. In my eyes this shocking tactic sums up exactly how the death drive can express itself in art . The death drive

Hirst is also famous for creating a life size human skull cast in platinum titled ‘For the Love of God’. The skull is encased in 8601 diamonds and is currently the most expensive piece of art ever created. The use of a real human skull -which according to Hirst was purchased in Islington emphasises his fixation with mortality. The skull, which to many is regarded as the ultimate sign of death could be interpreted as an obvious incarnation of Hirst’s own death drive. When interviewed by the Guardian newspaper regarding his luxurious crystal skull Hirst was quoted ‘I just want to celebrate life by saying to hell with death,’ Death is such a key aspect of Hirst’s work but so to is the controversy that surrounds it.

Not only is Hirst’s work an artistic representation of the themes and imagery often associated with the death drive but I believe that it is also a direct manifestation of the psychic energy created by the death drive. This energy is being sublimated into a creative art form. The work of Hirst would seem, if anything to be the artistic representation of someone with a wildly overactive active death drive, if this is true what has caused this? Looking into Hirst’s childhood and early life there are several interesting events that could explain his need to sublimate psychic energy into other activities. Sigmund Freud believed that by viewing and analyzing a piece of art in a way similar to analyzing dreams he could gain an incite into the unconscious drives and instincts that helped create them. “what he did with varying success, was to discover in the work of art evidence of the artist’s presumed infantile conflicts”

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Hirst’s parents separated when he was still very young, as a result his mother struggled to deal with his wild and often criminal behavior. Hirst’s relationship with his mother became ever more strained as she failed to tolerate his acts of rebellion. The separation of his parents at the age of twelve would have been a great cause for stress and anxiety. A stress that could have easily developed into a mental illness had he not been able to sublimate this psychic energy so successfully through his works of art. The breakdown in the relationship between Hirst and his mother would also have been cause of anxiety. It is perhaps due to this anxiety that he was able to achieve and be so successful in later life.

Hirst struggled as an artist throughout the first 23 years of his life, He persisted despite many complications and rejections, first at school and then sixth form where he was finally admitted only after his art teacher pleaded passionately with the staff begging them to give him a place. After two years spent in sixth form he left with an E grade A-Level in Art. After sixth form Hirst was then turned down and refused admission to the Leeds College of Art and Design but eventually managed to gain admission after he submitted a successful application. After his time at college Hirst worked for two years on various building sites before applying for a place to study Fine Art at Goldsmiths University in London. Again Hirst was initially refused admission but later reapplied and was granted a place. The struggle of Hirst to succeed in his artistic career in itself would be a great cause of stress and negative tension. Could this tension and psychic energy be the underlying cause of his

Hirst’s confrontation with death

Artists have always been fascinated with death. The artist almost instinctively seeks to address and confront death. This desire to seek out and face death is reflected in the photographic work of Erik Van Der Weijde. Weijde is a professional self-publishing photographer whose work is usually architecture related and whose work is often released in intricately created limited editions.

Weijde’s work based in Germany looks at buildings and architecture built and used by the Nazi’s between 1943 and 1945. The project titled “Siedlung” which translates as neighborhood or settlement is a journey that focuses on houses built by the Nazis for the German working class NSDAP members. The creation of these houses was a powerful propaganda tool for the Nazi party, which artificially removed people from unemployment and enforced a deliberate sense of unity and uniformity. The first thing that I notice about these images is how cold and sterile they appear. The houses are well kept but there is no sign of life. There are no people in the streets, no visible animals. There is not even a single bird visible in the sky. This bizarre deadpan aesthetic is obviously an expression of Weijde’s death drive and his deliberately simple images create a surreal soberness that unsettles the viewer. The photographs themselves whilst working well as a set do not follow any traditional systems or rules regarding traditional architectural photography. The images have a candid feel to them, the effect of which is a sinister voyeuristic overtone that adds to the uncomfortable image subjects.

Weijde’s other photographic projects include a set of photographs taken at a location where “Marc Dutroux used to go skating before he started kidnapping girls” This project is very similar to his project about Nazi architecture. The project simply titled “Ice-skating lanes” consists of a collection of images taken outside a skating rink. Similarly to the Nazi project the images show no evidence or make any reference to the events that took place. Perhaps taken out of context these images would not be so cold and sobering.

Both of these projects have been shot within the last couple of years “Ice-skating lanes” is dated 2006 and “Third Reich” 2007. Weijde has decided to shoot the majority of the images in these projects not in colour but in black and white. I feel that the black and white images are much more effective and evoke a much stronger sense of dread. Death is a state of minimalism and this deliberate decision to remove colour from the images gives them an archival feel, which if anything strengthens the morbidly unsettling atmosphere captured in the photographs. The production or creation of an archive reflects the death drives compulsive need for repetition. Weijde’s images are so simple in fact that they gain a surreal, otherworldly characteristic. The subject of Weijde’s work is so frequently morbid that it is impossible to ignore his obvious fascination with death nor is it possible to ignore his deliberate pursuit and confrontation of death. I believe that Weijde is a true example of how the death drive can inspire art or photography. Weijde’s interest lies purely in the fascination he has regarding the locations of these terrible incidents, he is not financially motivated nor does he seek controversy.

The fascination of documenting death and destruction does not end with Eric Van Der Weijde. Photographers from all over the world share a similar bond with death, a bond draws them to scenes of unimaginable carnage. Enrique Metinides is known for his macabre depictions of life in Mexico City. Having photographed his first dead body before the age of twelve, Metinides developed an obsession with documenting the recently deceased, for years he slept with his radio tuned into the frequencies of various emergency services such as the police, fire brigade and ambulance, desperately trying to eavesdrop and listen in on breaking news on disasters and tragic events that was being relayed from call centers to the emergency services. Sleeping in his clothes and listening long into the night Metinides was always prepared to leave his house at a moments notice in order to follow a scoop.

Metinides employed a series of unconventional methods to ensure that he was always first on scene, these methods included hanging around outside the various police stations and morgues and volunteering with the Red Cross so that he could arrive on scene with ambulances and paramedics, by doing this he was able to document the events without any interference from the public or police. The length that Metinides went to in order to ensure his place at the front of each incident illustrates his commitment and dedication to his work, a dedication that is shared by many artists and photographers. It is possible that this energetic drive was fuelled by Metinides’s own death drive the sublimation of which resulted in the obsessive habits and behavior he developed in order to successfully pursue his work. Metinides’s preparations often gave him the edge over the press and other reporters allowing him to be first on the scene of each disaster, armed with his trusted camera he documented each gruesome and bloody incident.

During his career Metinides worked for the “Nota Roja” (bloody news). Whilst working for the ‘bloody news’ Metinides built a morbid portfolio of suicide jumpers, decapitated bodies, street stabbings, crime scenes, accidental electrocutions, car wrecks, airplane crashes, exploding gas tanks, train derailments and other disasters. Metinides’s photography is unpleasantly tragic; he depicts these scenes of carnage in such a stark and unforgiving way. The images differ considerably from the archival styled work of Eric Van Der Weijde in both content and style. Eric Van Der Weijde’s images exhibit the death drive in a more subtle and symbolic way that at first glance could easily be missed, whereas the work of Metinides expresses the death drive in a much more aggressive way. This is partly because the work of Eric Van Der Weijde is inspired by acts from the past concentrating on documenting them in the present whereas Metinides’s work focuses on the chaos, unpredictable and spontaneous nature of life and death. The subject matter of Metinides’s work is so brutally shocking that it almost seems unreal. The images are almost driven to the point of abstraction as the audience is forced to confront the death that Metinides has photographed. “These images aren’t cheap magazine “photoplays”. The deaths and disasters are real.”

So why was Metinides so obsessed with confronting death? What was it that he sought to document? The underlying cause of Metinides’s build up of psychic energy which lead to the necessity of sublimation was not a result of repressed sexual as it had been with Leonardo Da Vinci, nor was it the result of a broken home or childhood conflicts with his mother. I believe that Metinides’s entire career developed as a result of the first dead body he encountered as a child.

The son of a popular restaurant owner young Metinides befriended the policemen and women that would eat there. They invited him to the station where he encountered his first corpse; the corpse had been laid on a track and beheaded by a train “This scene took the fear out of me, so I could continue to look at these kinds of images for the next fifty years” From then on Metinides used his “box camera” to take and collect pictures of accidents. Now this of course is not the usual behavior of a teenage boy and I believe could be the route of his lifetime fascination with the dead.

Other interesting facts known about Metinides are that he is a passionate collector of various objects, particularly “model ambulances and police cars” which he owns over “4000” of. Excessive collecting is often linked to the death drive as the death drive seeks repetition. Metinides is also an obsessive archivist who even till this day compulsively catalogues “video footage of live accidents from television for a growing personal archive” again this behavior could be argued to be the result of the death drive but interestingly could also be explained by the Eros, the life drive that instinctively seeks to preserve and create.

In an interesting interview with Metinides conducted by VMAGAZINE he tells of an incident where a man attempted to jump from the top of the Torero Stadium building because, he said “he wanted to feel what death felt like.” Metinides’s work cannot visually convey what death feels like but it does however illustrate what death feels like to those around it.

Personally I believe that Metinides work goes way beyond even the most compelling of photojournalism. When viewing Metinides’s work I feel myself drawn into his images. I feel like I am watching the events from a safe distance but then the realization dawns that I am not alone. In many of Metinides’s images large crowds of people have gathered around the scene of the accident and as I stare transfixed on the limp, lifeless body of a child or the cold dead face of a motor accident victim I slowly begin to pan out and notice the crowds of people not looking at the wreckage and chaos, instead there gaze is directly at me. People in the crowds are often looking straight into the lens of Metinides’s camera it makes us, as the audience feel uncomfortable as there eyes meet with our own but at the same time this awkward eye contact completes the cycle of voyeurism.

In a similar fashion to Damian Hirst Metinides’s work exploits death. His whole career has been built around the sad and unfortunate events that ended with a person losing their live. It seems that being able to face death, whether morally right or not can be very profitable business. Death is a constant theme in the history of art and photography, I believe that the popularity of the subject lies in the audience’s desire to understand and confront their own mortality.

…..work shows how fragile we are and how suddenly life can be taken away from us. The fact that these images remain so admired and that Metinides is still regarded as Mexico’s most popular newspaper photographer suggests that the obsession with death lies not just with the artist or the photographer but also with the audience. Perhaps the need for an artist to confront or portray death is not only a response to their own death drive but also to the death drive of their audience. I believe that by viewing work by artists such as Metinides the audience is able to sublimate some of their own negative energy. Art has long been known for its therapeutic properties


Psychic energy is what fuels a persons actions. Art is a direct sublimation of this psychic energy. If you are well balanced and mentally well rounded you will have less of this psychic energy to draw from. So basically the more screwed up and mentally unstable you are the more psychic energy you have to express in your artwork. This is why many great artists are often on the edge/ verge of a mental break down.


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