Sigmar Polkes Photographic Unconscious
In Sigmar Polke’s untitled photograph of 1975, the artist appears to float, his body suspended between a naked mattress and a curtain’s edge. The print is oriented horizontally and the images on it vertically, heightening the impression of weightlessness. Although Polke’s eyes are closed, he wears his trademark glasses and a white turtleneck sweater, emphasizing the self-portrait’s staged quality, in which he is depicted as though unconscious.
In the center of the work, illegible, reversed lettering is double-exposed over the artist’s slack-jawed face. Portions of the rectangular text read “always,” “that half-automatic,” and “enlarged,” with the word “enlarged” repeated twice, the second time in characters larger than the first. The text derives from a piece of darkroom equipment, the Kienzle Primus semi-automatic enlarger, creating a link between the picture’s unconscious subject and the darkroom process itself.
Like most of Polke’s works made after 1970, the photograph contains layers of images, with a cloudy, purplish-grey shadow cast over the floating body. Almost undoubtedly the silhouette of the artist’s hand, it has the reticulated aura of a light leak, poorly-fixed surface, or other darkroom mishap. The white frame squared off by the easel’s edge is marred with similar murky tones. Fingerprints run along the face of the photograph, touching Polke’s face.
What can we make of Polke’s thousands of photographs from the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, works which often exhibit a dazzling display of unorthodox—or even taboo—darkroom techniques? From using developing chemicals in the wrong order to showing the edge of the negative on a print, “flashing” the photographic paper in the darkroom with light and double—or triple—exposing prints without regard for registration, Polke’s experiments evoke the incompetent amateur, but also foundational photographic figures like Hippolyte Bayard, William Henry Fox Talbot, and Man Ray.
Polke’s rich use and misuse of the indexical qualities of the photographic paper conjure the “photographic unconscious,” described in 1939 by Paul Valéry, when he spoke to the Sorbonne on the 100th anniversary of the medium’s invention. Comparing the photographic image to the unconscious, Valéry described his wonder while observing “the advent to a visible state” of the latent image in a darkroom, and compared this experience “to many precipitations observable in the mind; to memories which become distinct.” In Valéry’s speech, a photograph’s latent image, arising from the chemical bath of darkroom developing fluid, becomes a metaphor for a buried memory surfacing in the human mind. The paper and the mind both store, invisibly and unaware, experiences that through some precipitate may be brought to light. Brassaï later took up Valéry’s definition, writing on the uses of photography in Marcel Proust’s prose: “People do not see “real life” because they make no effort to illuminate it. And so their past is encumbered with countless snapshots, which remain useless because the intelligence has not developed them.”1
Polke doesn’t stop at developing images once, but allows us to see an image constantly enacting that state of murky and involuntary recall. Photographic surfaces accumulate images and impressions not revealed until a later point in time when the print is developed and the images come welling up, as if by magic. Polke’s photographs, though, printed in layers and improperly fixed—and therefore constantly changing—exceed this ordinary instantiation of the photographic unconscious materially dwelling in a state of fluidity and visual ambiguity. Curators have spoken of opening an archival box to find one photograph profoundly changed, degraded beyond recognition, or even irretrievably gone.
Artwork dealing with the unconscious often trades in symbols, as in Magritte’s paintings, as if stable images were the constituent language of the unconscious mind. But Polke’s photographs describe an unconscious different from one of discrete and coded signs. They instead present situations in which the polymorphous indexicality of the photographic surface and the contaminating and corrosive effect of its precipitating chemicals evoke the functions of the unconscious and its involuntary systems of retrieval, corruption, and destruction. Although the image was made in 1975, “Untitled”’s conflationof advertising and staged self-portraiture, the canny clouding exceeding the picture’s windowed “frame,” as well as the seemingly accidental overlay of images, prefigures the Internet image-unconscious we inhabit today. Yet Polke’s photographs also escape the constraints of the totalizing and programmatic picture, giving us a glimpse of the often forgotten resistant and corrosive power of the repressed or latent image.
- Brassaï, Proust and the Power of Photography (The University of Chicago Press, Chicago: 2001), 134.