The uncanny has a chequered history. According to the OED it was not until at least the late eighteenth century that the word acquired something of its modern meaning; ‘Partaking of a supernatural character; mysterious, weird, uncomfortably strange or unfamiliar. (Common from c1850.)’ (Oxford English Dictionary 2020). Perhaps that is also true of other cultures and is why Freud devoted so much of his essay on The Uncanny to investigating the term’s meaning and origins (Freud 2003), although Freud was of course investigating the German term unheimlich.
‘Uncanny’ at one time seems to have been a rather vague put-down. An example is Alfred Horsley Hinton, editor of Amateur Photographer, criticizing some of Steichen’s work in 1904 (for example, Steichen’s images of New York’s Flatiron Building): ’I admire Steichen’s work for myself but it is the admiration one feels for something strange and uncanny – I can’t think that such work is healthy or would in this country have a beneficial influence’ (Rahmlow 2016). Horsley couldn’t understand the symbolic, impressionistic, subjective nature of Steichen’s work and clearly yearned for something bracingly noble and simple to understand, a statue of Prince Albert perhaps.
Thus Freud’s essay of 1919, which has set the tone for our modern understanding of the uncanny, was also a much-needed housecleaning and forensic examination. Freud called the uncanny ‘that species of frightening which goes back to what was once well known and had long been familiar’ (Freud 2003: 124) and he tried to locate this in the unconscious and repression, at first in the infantile castration complex and then later and especially in the repression of death. Freud also located the uncanny in the repression of what he called ‘insurmountable primitive beliefs’ that he believed modern man still carried deep in the psyche. This is not an expression that would find favour today. We might now refer to traditional belief systems (for example the myths and beliefs of the San people or of indigenous cultures in Australia). More generically, we might even refer to primal instincts, and there is no doubt that in darkness our sense do change, become more prickly and alert to danger.
Interestingly, Freud invoked Otto Rank’s idea of the double or doppelgänger in this process: ‘The double was originally an insurance against the extinction of the self or, as Rank puts it, “an energetic denial of the power of death”’ (Freud 2003: 141).
Photographs are of course doubles (and Freud’s essay is full of eyes and seeing as symbols of the castration complex). The indexicality of photographs makes them ghostly doubles of reality but their subjective representational aspects always produce uncertainty. In addition, photographs disturb our sense of time. They show us the past in the present moment, both dead and strangely alive. This is Barthes’ ‘noeme (that-has-been’)’ and he spent a great deal of Camera Lucida exploring it (Barthes 2000). In discussing Alexander Gardner’s 1865 portrait of Lewis Payne, for example, Barthes writes: ‘But the punctum is: he is going to die. I read at the same time: This will be and this has been; I observe with horror an anterior future of which death is the stake’ (Barthes 2000: 96). Both Barthes and Sontag saw the photograph as a species of memento mori and in Camera Lucida Barthes wrote of how society tends to repress the threatening unruliness of art: ‘Society is concerned to tame the Photograph, to temper the madness which keeps threatening to explode in the face of whoever looks at it.’ (Barthes 2000: 117). In sum, as Nicholas Middleton writes in his study of the uncanny and photography, ‘Death is the ultimate incarnation of the abstract that is the uncanny’ (Middleton 2020).
I had not realized just how long and complex the story of art and the uncanny actually is. There is already Gothic horror in the eighteenth century and a plethora of dark imaginings in the nineteenth century as the strangeness of an increasingly urban world began to take hold. Ideas of the uncanny were incorporated by the Surrealists, because the yoking together of two completely unexpected elements can provoke that unsettling sensation of seeing the familiar in an unfamiliar context, after Freud. Examples are Man Ray’s ‘Cadeau’ of 1921 and some of Lee Miller’s marvellously original photographs. See Figures 1 and 2.
Today the uncanny is perennially popular. It can be experienced in the alien but still recognizable suburban world of many of J.G Ballard’s novels and it is a staple of the cinema (one thinks of the unsettling creepiness of many Hitchcock films). The same is true of science fiction’s replicants and cyborgs. They take us back to the robotic Olimpia in E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Sandman which Freud analysed in his original essay and forwards to a contemporary interest in cutting-edge robotics and automata (Tronstad 2008).
The uncanny also takes us to a rich history in photography. I was very interested to see that an entire exhibition was recently devoted to it, ‘Magical Surfaces: The Uncanny in Contemporary Photography’ (Tique Magazine 2016).
The most useful survey of the modern uncanny I have found so far is by Caterina Albano in Esse Arts (Albano 2008). I particularly like the way she links the uncanny to a contemporary visual culture in which death is airbrushed away and meaning dissipates amid a bewildering display of Baudrillardian signs and simulacra: ‘Both psychoanalytically and culturally, the notion of the uncanny is increasingly inscribed within a discourse that invests estrangement, alienation and the other. Julia Kristeva poignantly underlines the experience of strangeness and depersonalisation as integral to the construction of contemporary subjectivity’ (Albano 2008). This is a very postmodern condition.
How does all this affect my practice? Since this is a large and complex subject, that will take time. I can begin, however, by realizing two things. First, that the estrangement and alienation of modern urban life are fertile ground for the uncanny. And second, that the uncanny works by combination to produce cognitive dissonance: the familiar with the unfamiliar, the expected with the unexpected and the presence of one thing with the absence of another. Like photography itself, these are all doubles.
ALBANO, Caterina. 2008. ‘Uncanny: A Dimension in Contemporary Art’. Esse Arts + Opinions [online]. Available at: https://esse.ca/en/uncanny-a-dimension-in-contemporary-art [accessed 2 Mar 2020].
BARTHES, Roland. 2000. Camera Lucida : Reflections on Photography. London: Vintage.
FREUD, Sigmund, David MCLINTOCK and Hugh HAUGHTON. 2003. The Uncanny. New York: Penguin.
MIDDLETON, Nicholas. 2005. ‘Photography & The Uncanny’. Photography & The Uncanny [online]. Available at: http://www.nicholasmiddleton.co.uk/thesis/thcontents.html [accessed 2 Mar 2020].
OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY. 2020. ‘Uncanny, Adj. : Oxford English Dictionary’. Oxford English Dictionary [online]. Available at: https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/210106?redirectedFrom=uncanny#eid [accessed 4 Mar 2020].
RAHMLOW, Kurt E. 2016. ‘The Admiration One Feels for Something Strange and Uncanny: Impressionism, Symbolism, and Edward Steichen’s Submissions to the 1905 London Photographic Salon’. Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide, 15 (1), Spring 2016 [online]. Available at: https://www.19thc-artworldwide.org/spring16/rahmlow-on-impressionism-symbolism-steichen-1905-london-photographic-salon [accessed 27 Feb 2020].
SONTAG, Susan. 2008. On Photography. London: Penguin.
TIQUE MAGAZINE. 2016. ‘Magical Surfaces: The Uncanny in Contemporary Photography’. Tique [online]. Available at: https://www.tique.art/exhibitions/magical-surfaces-uncanny-contemporary-photography/ [accessed 27 Feb 2020].
TRONSTAD, Ragnhild. 2008. ‘The Uncanny in New Media Art’. Leonardo Electronic Almanac 16(2-3), Feb-Mar 2008 [online]. Available at: https://www.leonardo.info/LEA/perthDAC/RTronstad_LEA160203.pdf [accessed 27 Feb 2020].
Figure 1. Man RAY. 1921. Cadeau. From: TATE. 2020. ‘The Uncanny – Art Term’. TATE [online]. Available at: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/t/uncanny [accessed 27 Feb 2020].
Figure 2. Lee MILLER. 1942. David E. Scherman, dressed for war, London.