I always keep in mind the wise words of a friend who worked as a photographer well into her 90s. Whenever you travel, she would say, try to be invited into someone’s home — see the stories told by how people live.
I thought of Leni Sonnenfeld as I paged through Mark Gerald’s recent and unusual book, “In the Shadow of Freud’s Couch: Portraits of Psychoanalysts in Their Offices (Routledge). A trained photographer and psychoanalyst, Gerald takes readers inside the working spaces of 50 psychoanalysts in the U.S., England, Italy, Brazil and other places. Although the photos are posed and the rooms self-curated, they tell stories that are alive with personality. The offices are sanctuaries, homes for some, dream spaces, places of healing.
A 15-year project, the book is a work of art and insight, opening up a world that’s usually closed. Gerald has a good eye for composition, and he includes stories behind the full-color photographs, weaving in his own life, the history and theory of psychoanalysis, some self-analysis, views of design, poetic reflections on photography and moments of humor.
Gerald has a doctorate in psychology; he did his psychoanalytic training at New York University’s Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis, where he is now on the faculty, as well as at the Stephen Mitchell Center for Relational Studies and other institutes. While this is his first book, he has published widely in professional journals and has exhibited his photographs.
“Having a psychoanalytic office entails both providing a space for patients and having a room of one’s own,” he writes. His own office, where we meet, is close to Central Park on the Upper West Side, a neighborhood he describes as full of Jewish psychoanalysts. I sit on a comfortable couch and he’s in an easy chair, surrounded by lots of mementos from his travels like a tree with colorful birds from Argentina; an antique bureau; crowded bookcases, some of which are replicas of bookcases his father made for his childhood bedroom more than 60 years ago; a walnut-framed mirror with postcards of admired figures like Allen Ginsberg at his writing desk, Eleanor Roosevelt and basketball great Lew Alcindor as a 16-year-old before he was known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; a carpenter’s tool that belonged to his grandfather; a painting of two faces that look pained; a figure with a tennis racket and a bicycle, which, he explains are nods to his physicality, even as he spends so much time sitting and listening.
“I’m here from 8 to 6, with patients. I want to be in a place that’s meaningful to me,” he says. As he writes of these objects, “I feel in the company of friendly spirits. Together they create a space for me to be with my thoughts, feeling, and associations. I can dive deep and swim broadly in their presence as I am experiencing my patients’ own deep explorations.”
Gerald describes the Vienna office of Sigmund Freud, “whose influence continues to permeate every psychoanalytic office even today.” In 1938, a Jewish photographer named Edmund Engelman documented the home office of the founder of psychoanalysis at 19 Bergasse, while it was under Nazi surveillance. Freud left Vienna in 1939 and died in London a year later. Now the office in Vienna is a small museum, with Engelman’s images on display. His photos were not widely available until 1976, when he published them as his memoir. The furnishings and objects that were in the office are now in the Freud House in London (where Gerald recently gave a talk about his book).
In both photography and psychoanalysis, Gerald’s goal is to go below the surface. His subjects — most of whom are Jewish — vary in age, background and orientation of practice. The portraits are intimate: Most look directly at the camera; there are a few smiles. More than one recline, one woman chose to be photographed with her parents, both psychoanalysts. Some offices are sparse, one is overflowing with objects from the woman’s first home in Vienna. Another woman describes her light-filled space as “like being in a hug.” All the offices seem filled with whispered secrets and curiosities. And, there is something felt of the photographer’s presence and connection to his subjects.
“Psychoanalysis has privileged hearing over seeing,” Gerald says. “I wanted to bring the visual back.”
Gerald grew up in the Bronx, where his family went to the Jewish Center of Violet Park, and later on, when his mother rejected sitting in the balcony, they switched to Tremont Temple. He began taking photographs when he was 18, soon after the death of his father (he says that he later made the connection that having a camera was a bridge between what was going on inside of him and what he was trying to see in the world). He continued studying and practicing photography — mostly street photography — as he worked his way through CCNY with a job in an insurance office, and in later years.
At the end of his psychoanalytical training, he had the idea of photographing his analyst and giving the print to him as a gift, to commemorate and celebrate their experience together. That turned out to be the beginning of this project, as Gerald further studied aspects of photography like lighting and portraiture, and reached out, first to friends, and then other analysts, to photograph them. He also did self-portraits (included in the book), which gave him a new sense of what his patients saw.
When he reached out to others, whether colleagues he knew or psychoanalysts he was curious about, he found almost everyone “even more than receptive.” As he explains, “This is a group of people who have not been seen. They know that and feel it and want to be seen.”