BookREVIEW: Fifty Shrinks

50 shrinks imageSebastian Zimmerman (Renee Silverman, Ed)

No listed publisher


Reviewer Polly Mortimer

Psychiatrist–come–photographer Zimmerman has produced a large, lavish collection of photographs of ‘psychs’ (therapists, analysts and psychiatrists) in their consulting rooms/offices. As well as arresting portraits of the man or woman themselves, he has interviewed each as a parallel to the photo. His curiosity has led him out of the isolation of the therapy room to interact with others to establish a commonality. The reader finds some vastly different private spaces.

There are interesting themes to be teased out: does the ‘theoretical orientation’ drive the ambience? How do clients find the ‘look’? Are these surroundings deliberately created? What is communicated? Are they off-putting? Is there an ideal?

I am not a therapist; I am a librarian. I have been to therapists and psychiatrists, the latter in pretty bleak NHS settings, the former in faux-midrange hotel room mode or at home with cats mewing and printers whirring. As a punter I find quite a lot of these photos very off-putting (my daughter said how creepy a lot of the people looked). However there is a fascination, and the facing-page interviews/excerpts from their published works are revealing. Almost a ‘catalogue’ of who to go to, who to avoid.

Elizabeth Danze in the Introduction says: ‘I consider the role of the room neither tacit nor passive but rather active in the creative work of analysis. It is an amalgamation of office, examination room, confessional and nest.’ The photographer himself has tried to look at the space both as a practitioner and to detach himself from that role and observe.

At a glance the rooms, offices, spaces – call them what you will – are very various in styles and signifiers. There are huge leather couches, classical paintings, masses of books, mobiles, pots of tea, a myriad of Rolodexes, small figurines and masks, vast explosions of papers, a grand piano, cluttered conservatories, glove puppets, a kids’ toy castle, businesslike anonymous aesthetics, peeling wallpaper, rubbish, conservatory with plants and some dreadful art on some of the walls.

To the non-therapist it seems that each therapist brandishes her or his approach in how they craft their surroundings – an analyst with Broadway clients goes ‘quirky’ with a Freud puppet, a therapist (also a painter) interestingly displays all his diplomas. This qualification waving is called ‘placebo’ by a therapist. The art work of a Jungian therapist is all over her walls – including snakes which Jung saw as change bringers – and a beautiful sunset backdrops the plain room of a therapist concerned with the spiritual journey of life, who works on clients’ ‘dark clouds’.

So the rooms range from suburban to high-rise, ferociously cluttered to ludicrously austere, dark and leathery to soft and cosy. The therapists themselves practice within a huge range of disciplines – from play therapy to EMDR, sex therapy to cognitive–behavioural, and rational-emotive; some specialize in working with those with ‘personality disorders’ – transference-focused therapy, others with clients from the forensic system.

This is a glossy, high-end production, with a collection of first-class portraits of the therapists and their surroundings. The photographs are telling; the positioning of the person, their relationship to their surroundings, how at ease they seem. Some look bleak, some relaxed, some pensive, some kooky, some look like those who one would avoid… I think it’s a good ‘coffee-table’ book (but pricey) for any training centre or university with therapy students; it lifts the flap on what is normally private, and the accompanying text is a good fleshing-out of the image. It’s a pity he didn’t include a selfie..

Polly Mortimer is librarian at the Minster Centre.





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