Photography & The Uncanny


It would appear that, according to Mladen Dolar, what is to be understood by the term 'uncanny' has arisen through the rationalisation of thought following the Enlightenment, that before this historical change the uncanny was bound up within the belief systems of society, and as such was not a separate phenomenon (from any other inexplicable occurrences), which had yet to find a scientific theory. Dolar links the appearance of the uncanny with modernity itself, that what would now be considered uncanny had been "assigned to a religiously and socially sanctioned place in the symbolic..."64, and, as such, after the Enlightenment, with the commonly accepted value that everything was or could be somehow explicable to scientific, rational theories, "the uncanny became unplaceable; it became uncanny in the strict sense."65 Thus

There is a specific dimension of the uncanny that emerges with modernity.66

It is appropriate then that the photograph, as a product of modernity, as an invention facilitated by science, should be so affected by the uncanny. As Barthes discusses, it is not so for other (older) forms of representation: the photograph becomes paradoxical. Unlike other art forms there is no mystery concerned with its generation, its inspiration, yet, and perhaps informed by the perfunctory nature of how simple it is to 'point and click', the photograph seems even more intangible as an object.
This is perhaps an underlying factor in the compulsion at work in the taking of photographs, as there is an undoubtedly compulsive nature to the act ritualised within different contexts, as a record, as evidence, as an exposition of something
67. The word 'taking' to described the action of obtaining a photographic representation is telling - photographs are not 'made' but 'taken' - an acquisitive act. Evidently 'taken' from reality, the compulsion is to stop a moment of time (to stop time itself): that is to capture an image of someone, something as it exists at that particular instant. Essentially there is an implication in this action of an attempt, a desire to negate the effect of death, but effectively this hastens it, multiplies it, every photograph being an unconscious reminder of death (being, like the double, an uncanny "harbinger of death");

For Death must be somewhere in a society; if it is no longer (or less intently) in religion, it must be elsewhere; perhaps in this image which produces Death while trying to preserve life.68



Footnotes: Conclusion

64 Dolar, op cit. p7
65 Ibid.
66 Ibid.
67 " It would not be wrong to speak of people having a compulsion to photograph: to turn experience itself into a way of seeing. Ultimately, having an experience becomes identical with taking a photograph of it[...] Today everything exists to end in a photograph." (Sontag op. cit. p24)
This is analogous to the 'compulsion to repeat' (as in recurring dreams and nightmares), the unconscious repeats the trauma, not as catharsis, but in a belated attempt to prepare the self for something that has already occurred, i.e. the unsettling encounter with the uncanny.
"In a general way the repressed seeks to return in the present[...]: '...a thing which has not been understood inevitably reappears...'", Laplanche & Pontalis, op. cit. p78- 79 "The most obvious connection between this 'repetition compulsion' and photography is the fact of mechanical reproduction and Barthes picks up on this link: 'the photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially.'[p.4] It has, therefore, some of the uncanny, fateful character of the repetition compulsion described by Freud." Iverson, op. cit. p153, (the line from Camera Lucida that Iverson quotes begins "What the Photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once:..." Barthes, op. cit. p4)
Also, it could be argued that photography has usurped memory: it has taken its place, as if photographs are necessary to legitimise memory.Photography is "...not so much an instrument of memory as an invention of it or a replacement." Sontag, op. cit. p165
68 Barthes, op. cit. p92


©copyright 2005 Nicholas Middleton