Symbolic Photograph

The Symbolic Photograph

            "Eating the Sun"  
                  Symmetrical Photograph
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Please note: I recommend that you read my page, Symbol before reading about the symbolic photograph, below.

Introduction, Background
I studied photography as a fine art in pursuit of my MFA degree at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, between 1969-1972.  I was given a full fellowship; in exchange for the tuition and a stipend I received I taught two photo courses per semester for two and a half years.  Teaching was an incredible education in itself.  No one who aspires to become a teacher of art should get his or her graduate degree without having been given the opportunity to teach as part of their graduate studies program.

I studied with Van Deren Coke, Ray Metzker, Beautmont Newhall, Jim Kraft, Peter Walch - all faculty in the Art Department, and David Johnson from the English Department (his course in myth was very important to my graduate studies; Prof. Johnson then became a member of my thesis committee.  I am grateful to them all for their time, wisdom, insight and support.

To fulfill the MFA degree requirement I was required to have both a visual thesis exhibition, and a substantial written thesis.  My 110 page thesis paper was entitled: 

The Symbolic Photograph : 
A Means to Self-Knowledge 
A Jungian Approach to the "Photographic Opus"

Abstract of the Dissertation

This dissertation is primarily a response to a question I've been contemplating for over five years: "Why do you make photographs?"  I have found an answer, with the help of Carl Jung, depth psychologist, especially in his psychological interpretation of the medieval symbolic process--the alchemical opus.  For Jung, alchemy prepared the ground for his psychology of the unconscious.  For me, Jung's inquiry into the "secrets" of the alchemical opus is a workable analogy to what I have termed the "photographic opus."  Through this analogy I feel I have shed new light on the creative process from the viewpoint of a photographer who is in search of what Jung has termed the Self.

The search fro Self is an instinctual drive in men and women.  It is an involuntary movement towards uniting the fragmented psyche (i.e., the conscious and the unconscious psyches).  A conscious awareness of the Self is the goal of Jung's "psychological opus," and correspondingly, the goal of the "photographic opus."  This can be achieved via the voluntary, conscious activity of making symbolic photographs.  I define the symbolic photograph as a visual representation of what Jung terms the synchronicity experience, i.e., the coincidence of a certain psychic image (the archetypes of the collective unconscious) with a corresponding objective process perceived to take place simultaneously and experienced as being "meaningful" equivalents of each other.  Then I go on to use these ideas in relation to the concepts and photographic images of Henry Cartier-Bresson, Edward Weston, Alfred Stieglitz, Minor White, and Jerry Uelsmann.  Tis objectifies and clarifies the ideas of both Jung and these five master photographers.

The "photographic opus" consists of two parts: the "Practice" and the "Contemplatio."  The "Practice" is the process of making symbolic photographs.  This is defined in the chapter dealing with synchronicity.  If the symbolic photograph is a visual representation of that which is unknown (i.e., unconscious contents, or archetypes), then a conscious, voluntary gesture by the photographer is necessary to withdraw and assimilate (contemplation) the unconscious contents into conscious "knowledge."  In this way once can come to know one's Self--that which embraces both the conscious and the unconscious psyches.  I use Jung's concept termed Active Imagination to define a method by which the photographer can contemplate his symbolic photographic images.


Note: Below is a brief summarization of my written dissertation focusing on the two essential aspects of the thesis: the making of symbols--and in my case, the making of symbolic photographs; and then the contemplation, or interiorizaton and integration of the psychic content contained within the symbolic image.  The goal of the creative process is Self-knowledge, conscious awareness and dialogue with the numinous Self, a unitary reality that transcends meaning based merely in intellectual knowledge, language, and sense perception.  Some things have changed in my understanding about the creative process since writing this thesis in the early 1970's, however the basic ideas still hold true for me today (I am revisiting and slightly revising this document in November, 2016.)  SF    

The Making of a Symbolic Photograph
The Symbolic Photograph is a visual image which holds in its form and content the union of unconscious archetypal psychic contents with their sensory, outward-worldly archetypal counterparts.  The photograph that functions as a true symbol is the means by which the photographer can discover what he or she has unconsciously, spontaneously projected 
outwardly--from within the psyche--onto the world.     

A perception that leads to the making of a symbolic photograph generates a subtle inner feeling, a spontaneous awareness, or some other kind of signal within the picture maker that a meaningful perception is occurring, that a psychic event, probably a projection is occurring and being recognized.  What makes the perception "meaningful" is the recognition, even if on a very intuitive level of awareness, of the coincidence of an inner psychic image and an outer sensory image which are matching up with each other, mirroring each other, in the form of a potential photographic image.  Depth psychologist C. G. Jung called this phenomenon synchronicity.  

When contents of the inner world and the outer world mirror each other in a high degree of coincidence, that is to say--in picture making terms--when form and content unite in just the right way, the photographer senses in his pre-visualized imagined potentially created image, enough possible meaning to justify the making of an exposure with the camera.  The reason may be simply to see in the form of an actual photograph what it is that may be sparking some sense of intuitive recognition. 

Intuition is the basis by which symbols get spontaneously manifested into the visual form of photographic images; and archetypal contents are activated within the psyche by the very process of photographic picture making.  If a photograph does function as a true, living symbol, it is potentially meaningful in open, unlimited and varying ways to everyone who is willing to contemplate the images, give themselves to the images, internalize them.  They are not just meaningful for the maker of the image; but it must be stated very clearly, that meaning will be different for each contemplator of the image.    Archetypes have no specific meaning for any viewer.  They are open-ended potentialities.  They will "mean" according to each viewer's personal capacities, the point in time in which the image is being considered, and many other variables. 

In my own experience, I have found that searching for things, situations, places, etc. to photograph requires a state of receptive openness.  It's a mode of being not unlike meditation.  When I am seeking to make photographs I become prepared to sense when "meaningful perceptions" or unconscious projections are occurring.  Perhaps a spontaneous idea, a feeling of inner necessity, or just a subtle impulse will generate the making of a photograph.  Sometimes a single meaningful photograph might generate a larger creative process in which an entire body of work is produced.  

Images of Unity
The impulse to make is based essentially in the desire to unite corresponding opposites: an interior content with its corresponding outside mirroring counterpart.  In Jung's terms, the resulting photograph is a uniting symbol.

The making of a symbolic photograph is essentially receiving  "News of the Universe." The image affirms what in the Islamic Tradition is known as "the Unity of Being".

The making of a symbolic photograph involves many decisions including where to stand,  the moment of exposure, the correct combination of aperture and exposure time, the necessary arrangement of forms within the frame, etc.  

There are also multiple decisions to be made interpreting the negative or digital image file into a viewable print form, such as: contrast, burning and dodging, and even more radical kinds of technical interventions and transformations.  But for the most part all of this happens without calculation or intellectual intervention.  Intuition is, in a way, allowing oneself to be guided by a higher transcendent power, that which is beyond ego, intellect, language, cultural conditioning, etc.  One simply serves or facilitates what needs to be done by a creative process greater than the individual personality.  

Once the symbol is made the next step is the contemplation of the image.   

The Contemplation of a Symbolic Photograph

Most photographs are a complex combination of subject matter, pictorial form, various degrees of media transformation, and psychologically projected content.  (See my essay: Seeing the Grand Canyon.)  Contemplation is the process by which we withdraw and integrate the projected unconscious content in the image into one's conscious awareness. That is to say, it is a fully conscious process of engaging the image.  Its almost a process of merging with the image.  It is a process that takes place in silence; and in this silence a dialogue with the image takes place.  The meaning of this dialogue becomes then integrated into one's being as a conscious experience of meaning.

How do you know a photograph is functioning as a symbol?  It is an image that when perceived is meaningful in an unsayable way; it has presence, a numinosity or mystery; it has a sense of being pregnant with potentiality.  Such images are functioning for the contemplator as a symbol.  

Definition of Symbol
Jung defined symbol as the best possible expression of that which is presently unknown.  That is to say, the image contains potentially knowable but presently unknown or unconscious psychic knowledge in a form that could not have been "expressed" in any other way at the time it was made.  

A symbol can take the form of any subject matter in any medium (a dream, painting, poem, photograph, music, dance, etc.), but the way the form and content and the medium function together yield's a meaning just right for the particular individual viewing the image.

Contemplation is something like interpretation; there are many ways the process can proceed, but it's essentially a process by which the viewer becomes aware of the unconscious content that attracts him or her to the image.  The knowledge gained through contemplation is in certain Traditional terms considered sacred knowledge because it is a form of Self Knowledge.   In some Traditions the concept of Self is close to or identical with the concept of Divinity, God, the Creator

How do you get to the meaning hidden within an image?
The techniques of contemplation are varied and often subtle, and they need to be adapted and refined for each individual in relation to a given symbolic image that is being engaged.  The content withdrawn through the contemplation process most probably will not be intellectual content.  Contemplation can yield an integration of understanding at a very subtle level within the psyche, but this is not meaning that can be verbalized.  The process involves what Jung called Active Imagination.  

Symbols are meaningful to a viewer in uniquely personal ways.  An awareness of the history of archetypal symbols is sometimes useful, but the meaning of a photograph functioning as a symbol can never be pinned down through some rational process, dependent on some historical collection of agreed upon meanings, because true meaning is the product of an intuitive, spontaneous creative process.  "Meaning" is tied directly to some aspect of the transcendent Self, that which is beyond polarities, beyond the intelligence of the brain or the mind or the ego, and it is which is always active and changing.  

The kind of meaning we are talking about is perhaps best characterized as that which comes from the Intelligence of the Heart.   The meaning of a symbol is unique to that moment in which it is perceived because it is the best and necessary content that is coming from the Self to that particular individualized self.  And the meaning may not manifest in terms of words.  Truly speaking, symbolic meaning is not-sayable, because the meaning transcends the limitation of words and language.  Ultimately the meaning is felt and integrated at levels too subtle for words. 

Each viewer will need to come to terms with the meaning of a symbolic image in their own way, in their own time.  The same photograph is likely to function in a different way and with different meanings for other viewers.  It can also function in different ways for the same viewer when contemplated in different times of his or her life.  

A trained therapist can help in the process of interpretation and active imagination, but the therapist can never give the viewer or artist a definitive, or particular answer to the question of a symbol's meaning.  It's crucial to understand that contemplation of symbols is an individualistic, organic, open-ended process.  

The Goal of the Alchemical-Spiritual Creative Process
At bottom, says Jung the psyche and world are One.   The true symbolic image represents the Unity of Being.  In Traditional Cultures sacred symbols shared a generally understood and agreed upon collective meaning, but they nonetheless may have served individuals with different personal meanings as well.  In Modern Times, a photograph perceived as being meaningful, i.e., functioning as a true symbol, can function at many different levels of the viewer's psyche.   The goal of the process of symbol making and contemplation is to know one's own transcendent, completely whole and integrated Self.   Carl Jung call the process Individuation.

The Photograph As Conscious Uniting Principle 
The original state of being for primordial man (Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden before the fall) was an unconscious, psychic identification with God, Divinity, the Natural World.  Man existed in an unknowing state of Oneness with everything.   The apparent world and the Divine Source were perceived as one and the same.  Everything was sacred.  Everything was the Self.  

Jung saw that Modern Man's suffering was based in an unconscious psychological separation or fragmentation from the Self.  Jung could see in his own personal work that the spontaneous creation of symbols was the psyche's way of healing itself, bringing the fragmented psyche back into wholeness or back into Unity . . .  at a conscious level.  

The intentional work of making and contemplating symbolic photographs provides a bridge or link between the opposite sides of our dualistic world: between conscious and unconscious psyche, between psyche and world, between Man and Nature, between Heaven and Earth, between Man and Divinity. 


Related online project pages:

The Photograph As ICON


Grace-Photograph-Symbol-Universe  (January, 2017) explores my creative process in photography in relationship to my practice of Siddha Yoga Meditation, grace, and the symbolic photograph.

Intuition, Correspondence, Contemplation, The Silent World

Active Imagination 

Seeing the Grand Canyon  Steven D. Foster

News of the Universe  

Welcome Page  to The Departing Landscape website which includes the complete hyperlinked listing of my online photography projects dating back to the 1960's, my resume, contact information, and more.

Recommended Reading:

Tom Cheetham,  All the World an Icon - Henry Corbin and the Angelic Function of Beings