Photography & The Uncanny

Two: Photography & The Uncanny

The uncanny is a latent presence in photography: thus whereas not all photographs (by any definition) appear uncanny, there is within the nature of photography as a medium the very criteria necessary to construct it as 'uncanny', as defined broadly with reference to psychoanalysis. Perhaps due to the photograph's ubiquity, its uncanny nature has necessarily become subsumed into a general accepted acknowledgment of its strength in its representation of reality; otherwise it would be appropriate to question this ubiquity. If the photograph was to create 'anxious ambiguity' quite consciously, its unthinking use would need to be controlled; however there is a certain understanding reached about its 'reality' that renders its uncanniness neutral and ineffective (within most common uses). This is not to say though that its definition as being uncanny is also reduced to be applied only to those examples outside of the common usage of the medium,19 specifically as in journalism and advertising, where its form as a representation of reality is required to be as untroubling and as conforming as to not disrupt the reading of its content. Rather, a more cautious approach might consider that indeed its uncanniness is repressed. It is, according to Barthes, "experienced with indifference":

Society is concerned to tame the Photograph, to temper the madness which keeps threatening to explode in the face of whoever looks at it. To do this it possesses two means.
The first consists of making Photography an art, for no art is mad...
...The other means of taming the Photograph is to generalise, to gregarize, banalize it until it is no longer confronted by any image in relation to which it can mark itself, assert its special character, its scandal, its madness.

As Freud describes the 'uncanny' as 'frightening' ("that class of the frightening..."21 ), it may appear too extreme a term to apply to photography. Some photographs, with regards to their subject, may be considered frightening, but as a a medium it would not be recognised as such. This rationally would appear to hold true on a conscious level. However, if instances of the examples Freud gives as being 'uncanny' are related to the medium of photography, tracing the parallels between the two, a consensus can be reached.
Freud's initial example of something which is uncanny is taken from a quotation of Jentsch, that of the automaton ("doubts whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might not in fact be animate"
22). The camera itself is an automaton: a machine that sees and creates pictures. It is an automatic eye, and one that manages to usurp, in certain aspects, the supremacy of the human eye. Thus photography has an objectivity, a veracity, conferred by the camera's 'automatic' status. Its objectifying gaze can be seen as becoming uncanny: it reduces events, situations, subjects - reality itself - into an image, an inanimate object, this being created from an original animate. Here it may be useful to note a distinction between photography and the cinema, to relate how the two can be separated as different mediums, and to intuit as to why photography is the subject here. Cinema has the ability to create uncanny feelings due to its nature as a fiction23, but this is apart from its nature as a medium, which is not inherently uncanny, at least as is here understood with regards to photography. A photograph is an object24, whereas cinema is an experience, and more importantly as to how it is read, it is an experience with absolute limits within time, while a photograph can be considered to exist both within and without simultaneously. Certainly, both the photograph and cinema rely on the same optical-chemical basis - "after all, a film is only a series of photographs"25, but it is a sequence moving so rapidly that each individual frame can no longer be held, to which end it operates in an entirely different manner to the single static image: importantly so, as Metz quotes Peter Wollen, "Thus on one side [photography has] "a free rewriting time"; on the other [cinema has] "an imposed reading time".26
Thus the camera's mechanical (re)production means that it is uncanny in how it creates, yet is only a machine - a machine functioning as a creator - an inanimate object which is somehow animated by its purpose. There is only a certain amount of directed control the operator of the camera has over the photograph (from which stems the argument of photography's status as a art, which is directly linked to its democratisation), which gives the apparatus a life of its own.

The daguerreotype is not merely an instrument which serves to draw nature...[it] gives her the power to reproduce herself.27

A further example of the uncanny according to Freud is "the idea of something fateful" which is related to the principle of the 'omnipotence of thoughts'28, though here it has more relevance to an aspect of the practice rather than to the medium of photography, and, albeit loosely, it does serve to enlighten a certain ill-defined area, that best described by Henri Cartier-Bresson's famous term, 'the decisive moment'. Perhaps merely indicative of the chance element in photography (though 'objective chance' is a contentious phrase), it may be construed here that something is beyond the photographer's control. In waiting for the 'right' moment, a fortuitous instant when a certain compositional balance (or imbalance) is achieved, and a 'readymade' picture presents itself for the taking, it is implied perhaps that the photographer has an unconscious knowledge that, intuitively, an equilibrium will be reached somehow, and a picture will 'happen' (beyond the photographer's control, and regardless of whether the picture is actually taken or not). Thus, loosely, chance becomes fate and the concept of the omnipotence of thoughts is touched upon.
In relating photographic chance to the idea that photographs can be found objects, 'unpremeditated slices of the world'
29, 'chance' becomes a false definition if the concept of the compulsion to repeat is applied. The found object becomes the lost object regained: "an unconscious compulsion associated with a real event is seen instead as a real event that produces an unconscious effect"30; found objects are found precisely because they are (unconsciously) looked for. A found object can therefore appear uncanny due to being familiar to the unconscious mind, being actively sought, but unrecognised in its conscious aspect - the return of the repressed.

If "the shadow and the mirror image are the obvious analogues of the body"31, according to Dolar's reading of Otto Rank's The Double : A Psychoanalytic Study, than perhaps this could be extended to include photography too, another of "its immaterial doubles, and thus the best means to represent the soul"32. There are numerous anecdotes from the early history of photography where in 'primitive' societies photography was feared as 'stealing one's soul'33, and it is precisely this, that primitive beliefs, surmounted by rational thought, are still present in residual unconsciousness, and these, when touched upon, cause feelings of uncanniness. Further, "the shadow and the mirror image survive the body due to their immateriality - so it is that reflections constitute our essential selves"34, and a photograph is in a sense a shadow or reflection, captured by a lens and projected onto a light- sensitive surface. If the photograph is here identified as a form of the double, Dolar's discussion of this example of the uncanny through Lacan's concept of the mirror phase throws up some particularly interesting diversions - even more so if the parallels are considered between the mirror's reflection and the photograph of the self. Seeing, not as one sees oneself, but from an objective positioning, from outside of oneself - as in looking at photographs of the self - can become an uncanny experience:

But imagine that one could see one's mirror image close its eyes: that would make the object as gaze appear in the mirror. This is what happens with the double, and the anxiety that the double produces is the surest sign of the appearance of the object[...] Here the Lacanian account of anxiety differs sharply from other theories: it is not the anxiety of losing something (the firm support, one's bearings, etc.). On the contrary, it is the anxiety of gaining something too much, of a too-close presence of the object.35

Seeing photographs of the self is a specific instance of this: undeniably many people are uncomfortable with the photographic image of themselves (and this is not necessarily due entirely to individual vanity). Perhaps this aspect of the photograph, by the nature of its veracity - by removing subjective vision - instill an ego-less mode of seeing, in which the stripping of identity produces the very anxiety of the uncanny.
This is a specific relation of the double to the photograph as regards subject: it is possible to extend this consideration of the double beyond this to the medium of photography itself. Freud, too, makes use of the double as a source of the uncanny, referring to Otto Rank's connection between the 'double' and reflections, shadows, spirits, "the belief of the soul", and "the fear of death"
36. Rank stipulates the double's original function as being an "energetic denial of the power of death", and the concept of the immortal soul being the first 'double' of the body, which according to Freud sprang from "the primary narcissism which dominates the mind of primitive man"37. This phase having been surmounted, the 'double' is symbolically inverted and becomes "the uncanny harbinger of death"38. Freud also relates the 'double' to the facility for self-observation and self criticism, putting what he describes as the 'critical agency'39 against the ego, thereby giving the old idea of the 'double' new meaning. The quality of uncanniness therefore

...can only come from the fact of the 'double' being a creation dating back to a very early mental stage, long since surmounted - a stage, incidentally, at which it wore a more friendly aspect. The 'double' has become a thing of terror, just as, after the collapse of their religion, the gods turned into demons.40

Thus the repressed returns as the uncanny.

Separating the 'double' from death (to which it seems quite inextricably linked), initially, for the purpose of analysis here, it is easy to construct photography as an example of a form of the 'double', broadly defined. In this sense it is "a usurpation of the referent by the sign, or of physical reality by psychic reality"41.
Photography is a double of reality; it reproduces reality with a certain objective exactitude: it is a transparent sign in semiotic terms, a 'natural' medium which facilitates a reading of the signified, most often without drawing attention to its status as a signifier. To emphasise its transparency: that which is photographed is seen through the photograph. It could be said that this reality is seen not by looking at the photograph for itself, but rather by taking the photograph as becoming that which it would represent
42. Paradoxically this informs it as an object: photographs are rarely (consciously) considered to be mere representations, with the limits that this definition implies, but more as embodying a certain essence of the very reality represented. Reality and representation are generally considered to be mutually exclusive, contrasting one with the other, and so the collapse of the two into the photograph is significant. Barthes makes the distinction that:'s Referent is not the same as the referent of other systems of representation. I call photographic referent not the optionally real thing to which an image or sign refers, but to the necessarily real thing which has been placed before the lens, without which there would be no photograph.43

...Barthes tends to locate the photograph's uncanniness more in its insistence on the referent. The object is not just represented as in a drawing or a painting - rather it clings to the photograph in a disconcerting way.44

One principle difference between photography and the cinema (while both depend on the same optical-chemical basis) is how each mode is approached in context: the cinema is most often accepted as fiction, the "imaginary referent, [while] the real referent is felt to be dominant in photography."45 Apparently straightforward, the semiotic reading of photography and the cinema is a little problematic in that, in semiotic terms,

...both modes of expression are fundamentally indexical [...] Pierce called indexical the process of signification (semiosis) in which the signified is bound to the referent [...] by an actual contiguity or connection in the world.46

However, if both are indexical, they are not read in the same way. The imposed narrative of the cinema, implied in any series of successive images, means that "the unfolding as such tends to become more important than the link of each image to its referent";

Photography on the other hand remains closer to the pure index, stubbornly pointing to the print of what was but no longer is.47

Essentially therefore both are positioned as having the same semiotic relation to reality, that both the cinema and photography can be interpreted as 'doubles' of the real, but their respective modes of consumption mean that cinema is affective in a different way to photography, and that the photograph's uncanniness goes beyond its relation to reality in semiotic terms. The photograph's indexical nature means that it is a reality (in itself) that exists within reality, and complicating this, existing within a separate time: the photograph is necessarily the past existing within the present. Photography therefore appears to distort concepts of reality and time, the photograph being both an instance of (stopped) time, the past, existing within the continuum of the present, and the conflation of the past and the present can produce an unnerving effect. This is most explicit with reference to the photographic portrait, with relation to concerns of death, the conferred immortality of the photograph and its contrasting status as a memento mori.

next: Three: Photography & Death

Footnotes;Photography & The Uncanny

19 as in, for example, photographs by Arbus or Witkin.Here it is the subject as much as the photograph itself which is uncanny. This has the effect of doubling the nature of its uncanniness; both form and content, medium and subject converge on the uncanny, appropriately, and the defining edges of the two begin to blur.
20 Roland Barthes, op. cit. pp117-118
21 Freud, op. cit. p340
22 Ibid p347, Jentsch, quoted in Freud.
23 Freud's remarks concerning literature and the uncanny can be fairly applied to the cinema, op. cit. pp372-375.
24 ì...the [photographic] image is also an object.," Susan Sontag, On Photography, p.3
25 Christian Metz, Photography and Fetish,1985, p.156
26 Ibid p155
27 J.L.M. Daguerre, 1838, quoted in Sontag, op. cit.
28 cf. Freud, Totem and Taboo, p144 and p122
29 Sontag, op. cit. p69
30 Foster, op. cit. p29
31 Dolar, op. cit. pp11-12
32 Ibid
33 Indeed, the French writer Balzac had a pathological fear of being photographed (cf. Sontag, op. cit. p158-159)
34 Dolar, op. cit. p12
35 Ibid, p13
36 Freud, op. cit. p356
37 Ibid
38 Ibid p357
39 Later developed by Freud into the concept of the 'super- ego'.
40 Freud, op. cit. p358
41 Foster, op. cit. p7
42 "An uncanny effect is often and easily produced when the distinction between imagination and reality is effaced, as when something that we have hitherto regarded as imaginary appears before us in reality, or when a symbol takes over the full functions of the thing it symbolises, and so on."(my italics), Freud, op. cit. p367
43 Barthes, op. cit. p76, and further, "a specific photograph is never distinguished from its referent (what it represents)... is not impossible to perceive the signifier [...] but it requires a secondary action of knowledge or of reflection", Ibid. p5
44 Iverson, op. cit p453
45 Metz, op. cit. p156
46 Ibid. In Charles Sanders Pierce's terms, this sub- definition of the sign appears closest to 'reality'. For Pierce a sign could be sub-divided into three types, depending on its relation on the signifier: an 'index'; a 'symbol', bound to the referent by social convention; and an 'icon', bound by some apparent similarity (cf. Metz, op. cit. p156).
47 Metz, op.cit. p156


©copyright 2005 Nicholas Middleton