Photography & The Uncanny


This study of photography and the uncanny is intentionally concerned with the medium of photography as its subject; it does not look at specific photographs. Necessarily, it makes many assumptions, not least to speak of 'photography' as a universal, which is 'improbable', "a photograph cannot be transformed (spoken) philosophically, it is wholly ballasted by the contingency of which it is the weightless transparent envelope."1
The interest came from reading Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida and realising that there was a point of convergence with The 'Uncanny'
2 : I felt that the one somehow informed the other, intuitively concluding that I felt photography to be 'uncanny'. This essay attempts to theorise that intuitive conclusion, and to investigate how photography can be interpreted as an 'uncanny' medium. Freud's essay only discusses the realm of experience and that of literature, that is there is no consideration of the 'uncanny' in other artforms. Likewise, Barthes does not mention The 'Uncanny', though this does make its presence felt underlying much of his discussion of the Photograph concerning Death. Here was the initial difficulty (in gaining a consensus): only Iverson3 actually uses the word 'uncanny' in the same breath as 'photography'; however there seemed to be no consideration of photography and the 'Uncanny'. Much had to be inferred and assumed: the uncanny often appeared to be implied in such discussions of the psychology of photography yet never stated as such. Thus it became an exercise in pushing my assumptions of what photography is ("the This"4 ), and how it can be understood as 'uncanny', how the one and the other converge, and where this leads.
The attraction of photography I had realised, though never so clearly, so lucidly expressed, was the object's (the photograph's) "too close presence"
5 to the subject, simply that a photograph, the Photograph, is uncannily real.6
I had begun by looking at photographs that appeared to me to be at the edges of photographic discourse, specifically at Witkin, and Arbus, but also Atget and Hans Bellmer, the photographs of which seemed to have an undefinable quality in common, and I felt that perhaps this undefinable quality could be 'the uncanny'. Soon, however, I realised that maybe the Photograph itself is uncanny. Once this realisation had been reached and under tentative analysis seemed to hold up, I had to change my approach to the subject, given that I would no longer be dealing with specific photographs, but rather with a theory of photography itself.

next: One: The Uncanny


1 Roland Barthes,La Chambre Claire(Camera Lucida, 1980), p.5
2 Sigmund Freud, Das Unheimliche(The 'Uncanny', 1919)
3 Margaret Iverson, What Is A Photograph?, 1994
4 Barthes, Ibid.p.5
5 Mladen Dolar, 'I Shall Be With You On Your Wedding Night': Lacan and the Uncanny,1991, p.12
6 And the uncanny is the embodiment of the encounter with the Lacanian 'Real', the object a; thus the implications if photography is 'uncanny' (cf. Dolar, p.6, also Iverson's discussion of Camera Lucida, op. cit. pp451-453).


©copyright 2005 Nicholas Middleton