Book Review: Layers of Reality

  By John Veldhoen

Before I can write anything about the photographs in Anna Püschel’s “Layers of Reality”, I have to address the concept she means to investigate. Along with a psychological researcher, a psychoanalyst, a neuroscientist, and a philosopher, Püschel writes in this volume on the topic of synaesthesia, which most simply can be thought of as a mixing of senses. The phenomenon can be experienced in many ways, but Püschel is mostly concerned with the affects of colour and her responses. Some people will see a colour and respond with a different sensory expression, a smell, for instance. What takes place descriptively as synaesthesia, or clinically, is somewhat different than what is interpreted as such by Püschel, who also sees colour as a key to triggering a memory, which is echoed in her contributor’s writings. This book is strongest when it is Püschel’s highly enjoyable, and often touching photographs, paired with these descriptions of memories being called to the fore. I should also say that I found it beautiful to hold, carefully designed and made by the Eriksay Connection, an independent European publisher producing a list of books of which many are premised in the same way: all of them are thought-provoking. The colour wheel that Püschel reproduces in this book is dazzling. She used it as a means to quote from her impressions of colour, in order to make a personal reference, and seemed to me straight out of Goethe’s or Johannes Itten’s colour studies, at first glance.

What fascinates me though is how the expanded definition of synaesthesia used in “Layers of Reality” is how representational realism, and dualism, has become the reigning position of our age; many today find the descriptions of materialism comforting. To be fair, Püschel’s investigation is not so much about consciousness, her investigation is into perception, and my concern about what it implies could be mine alone. I admire a stratum of colour photographs by a number of photographers: William Eggleston’s Paris’ portfolio, David Julian Leonard’s book “Tender is the Light”, the work of Su Bo, Wolfgand Tillmans, and Wolfgang Zurborn. I have never cared too much about what each believed about how colour works physically, however. The arguments made today by neuroscience and neuroarthistory have held no sway for me. From Aristotle’s ‘De Anima’, to Julius Caesar Scalinger’s (what a character!) ideas about movement and the senses, many have tended in a direction that I think is nonsense, categorizing and separating various sensations into finite channels. Talking about this book, one of my colleagues mentioned a song by Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti, entitled “Synasthasia”. The simple lyric summarises all of this, hypnotically repeating to the listener how they should “feel the senses”.

Drilling down and transcending sensory concerns could be prerequisite for another kind of photography, that didn’t engage in separations, and categorization. There are many like-minded but individual arguments on this side of the coin. I recently started what seems like one of the best books I have ever read, “The Man in the Roman Street”,  written by a historian named Harold Mattingly. He has a chapter called “Language and Forms of Thought”, where he argues that consciousness is not completely knowable from its parts, even if it is perceived to be made up that way. I also think of the author Tertullian, who wrote that Aristotle asked for an animal’s sacrifice on his deathbed, decrying the dependence on the physical, and qualia, in Aristotle’s thought. Beyond that, I have thought about how sources from varying traditions commend something unlike the modern focus on sensation. The Bhagavad Gita, for instance, says that an enlightened person, in sensing, always knows that they actually do nothing at all. It makes me wonder what that attitude yields in terms of photography, and I think of Alfred Stieglitz’s “Equivalents”, an oft-cited paragon of photographic abstraction.

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In addition to being on our sales team, John curates The Camera Store's book selection and is a contributing author of our blog. He likes to think about photography, talk about photography, and sometimes write about photography.