FLEA MARKET PHOTOBOOKS: 15 / MAR / 2021
by Robert U. Akeret
Pocket Books: New York, 1975
Reviewed by Annebella Pollen
The nuclear family depicted on the cover of Photoanalysis comprise a suited father, a fashionably-dressed mother and two blonde primary-school age children. Smiling and embracing, they are, at first glance, an idealised cereal packet image of domestic accord in the 1970s. At the hands of a book that claims "to read the hidden psychological clues in any photo", however, the sitters become specimens for critique. White circles highlight photographic details linked to probing questions. Of the mother’s hand on her son’s shoulder: "Is this real affection?" Of the father, whose face is turned away from the camera: "Is this man really happy?"
Photoanalysis, first published in 1973, was the first book by New York shrink, Dr Robert U. Akeret. Swiss-born and trained under Erich Fromm, Akeret’s system was informed by more than 20 years of therapeutic practice. The opening pages provide accounts of his analysands and their complex psychological blocks; these were only resolved when Akeret suggested that each brought family photographs to the couch. In a method close to what visual sociologists now call photo-elicitation, photographs provided prompts for psychological revelation.
From these professional beginnings, Akeret developed a popular approach designed to be applied to anyone’s family photographs and more widely to press photographs of public figures. The guidance demands close scrutiny - reading an image ‘like a book’ from left to right and top to bottom – followed by detailed enquiry. Akeret’s suggestive questions are full of the argot of the era: interpersonal dynamics, gestalt and especially body language. In fact, Julius Fast’s 1967 book, Body Language, by the same publisher, provides useful context for Photoanalysis. Body Language had sold 3 million copies by 1973 and the Pocket Book covers of the two publications were of a piece. Fast’s book featured an attractive woman in a shift dress and bare feet surrounded by similar questions, albeit of a highly gendered nature: "Does her body say that she’s a loose woman? Does her body say that she’s a manipulator?" Akeret acknowledged shared similarities, saying that photographs reveal hidden truths "like dreams, body language, slips of the tongue, handwriting".
For all its seriousness in origin, Akeret’s technique is fairly flimsy. Photographs are often read out of context, with little attention paid to their conditions of production. A distracted child on a mother’s lap indicates distrust rather than, say, boredom in the studio; unsmiling rows of early twentieth century schoolchildren signal misery rather than a teacher’s instruction. All interpretations are framed by the prejudices of the period, particularly in relation to women’s roles and appearance. While Akeret offers repeated caveats about what photoanalysis cannot do, and warns against making assumptions, he repeatedly ignores his own advice.
The section on analysing photographs of public figures is the most problematic, if the most entertaining. Faced with a historic classroom portrait, the reader is instructed: "Find the Fuhrer in this photograph". The position of the juvenile Hitler at centre-top of the group is said to provide evidence for his political trajectory. A photograph of Charlie Whitman, aged two, holding a rifle in each hand alongside a surprised-looking dog, predicts his later actions: the killing of his wife and mother and the shooting of 34 people from the top of Texas Tower in 1966. Some photos, Akeret concludes, "scream warnings that should not go unheeded". Here the photoanalytic process sits somewhere between post-hoc rationalisation and tea leaf divination.
Akeret’s strategy for interpreting press photographs is to find out "purposefully little". Contextual information would contaminate intuition. This leads to peculiar results. Famous Magnum images of Picasso, taken by his friend, Robert Capa, at Cote D’Azur in the late 1940s and early 1950s, go uncredited. They are discussed as if they were paparazzi or family snaps rather than cultivated performances by one of the world’s most photographed artists taken by one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated and gifted photojournalists. Richard Nixon’s portrait is sliced in half vertically to demonstrate, post-Watergate, the two sides of his duplicitous character. Salvador Dali’s walking cane, repeatedly depicted as part of his theatrical persona, is predictably a penis extension.
Photoanalysis was dismissed by A. D. Coleman, the New York Times’ first photography critic, in a review scathingly entitled ‘He Could Have Done a Better Job’. Photoanalysis also received a comprehensive drubbing by Richard Chalfen in the first issue of the Journal of Visual Communication, where it was held up as a model of how not to do it. Both found the text trivial, suitable only for parlour games and cocktail parties. Academics and readers of the NYT, however, were not the target market for Photoanalysis, which was described on its wrappers as a "psych-fest", was excerpted in Ladies Home Journal and went through fifteen editions between 1973 and 1975.
Pocket Books produced the first mass-market paperbacks in America in 1939 and in the 1970s were churning out publications on subjects from How to Read a Person like a Book to colour analysis for self-understanding. These were listed at the back of Photoanalysis, along with a full-page advertisement for The Joy of Sex, which still topped the bestseller lists a year after its release and was freshly produced in cheap softback in 1973. Like Alex Comfort’s book, Photoanalysis was a how-to guide providing techniques to be tried at home by the millions. A mere 4 x 7 inches in size, Photoanalysis provided 230 photographs and over 300 pages of guidance for less than two dollars. As a historic artefact to be evaluated rather than a theory to be dismissed, Akeret’s book sits at the intersection of photographic criticism, the human potential movement and the self-help publishing boom of the early 1970s. Phototherapy has developed as a rigorous system since Photoanalysis but Akeret continued to argue that visual literacy remained underdeveloped in the population at large. In 2000 he reprised the theme for his final book, Photolanguage, in a new period with new photographic examples from O J Simpson to the Clintons.