PHO705: Research – more on the Unheimlich


Having recently communicated progress and details of research themes for the Major Project, the action has triggered several responses in terms of recommended reads, both from a Supervisor and here a Tutor from a Guest Group Critique.

Recommendations made were an essay (Middleton, 2005), a White Cube Diaries (Anderson, 2013) publication with visual examples of the uncanny. Finally, Photography and the Optical Unconscious. (Smith, 2017)

Photography and the Optical Unconcious

Return to blog here once the reference has been read.

Revenant 1 by Michael Turner

Photography and the Uncanny

In the essay/thesis Photography and the Uncanny (Middleton, 2005), acute observations are made regarding photography as seen through a lens of psychoanalysis. This references Barthes and in the semiotic a mix of symbolic and imaginary then the presence of Death in the photograph.

The photo-project though has a different emphasis being based on a theme of healing, mitochondrial DNA as an information carrier and a collapse of time that enables identification with ancestors. There is an element of the Double of those who are contemporary and those who existed in the past.

The essay considered specific photographs in an endeavour to seek out the uncanny but turned to the theory of photography instead. (ibid)

In the photo project, the abstract process is consistent in creating uncanny outcomes. Randomness exists as intuition barely provided direction of the likely outcome although with practice the source images begin to yield clues. The practice of abstraction allows work to continue on an image until an outcome or outcomes become certain. In other words, like a search for the uncanny, the work can continue until the mind’s eye detects an endpoint categorisation of interest.

Consideration is given to aesthetics and the return of the repressed in an unfamiliar guise (ibid). Certainly, for the photo project, the outcomes or images derived from abstraction are recognised when being created. There is a sense of loss to which ghost images easily connect. As a place, there are types of terrain that attribute easily to the past home, to the coastal areas and sea and the presence of mountains. Finally, the emergence of inner spaces and outer spaces with similar aesthetics relate well to the theme of microbiology. In conclusion, thus far, there is a crossover as well as substantial differences. The key is most likely easier as the attribution of the abstracted images to painting more than to photography even if the data captured is done so through photography.

There may well be a connection to the unconscious and the drives (ibid) However, the effect sought is not revulsion but more of the weighty personal experience and the joy of healing and the identification that it now brings.

The return of the familiar (ibid) is a fascinating concept as identification in the photo project is with those who were lost who ought to have been known and it is the impact of this loss on those who existed within living memory and of the places that were once a shared homeland. There is though the presence of an obscured element (ibid). Indeed the photographs taken for the project do offer (although the possibility of) the unfamiliar and novel perspective of reality (ibid), even if this is not a rigorous definition of the uncanny in photography.

What is written about Photography and the Uncanny (ibid) holds true for the photo project. The uncanny is a latent presence in photography (ibid) and not all photographs are uncanny yet the medium embodies the criteria necessary to construct it as uncanny (ibid), This may well ally to the idea of the abstraction process being akin to painting which certainly has the required elements of making as relating to the above “necessary to construct”.

The lifeless object as animate (ibid) can be seen to parallel the photo project. in which there is a glow representation of warmth and health and life attached to the otherwise Dead photograph even when of a live subject making connections to the Dead though spectres or visions of the past.

Again there is correspondence in the mechanical eye being able in some ways to usurp the supremacy of the eye (ibid). The photo project relies on the digital sensor capturing data not readily apparent to the eye until processed (enhanced) during a post-processing phase.

In terms of Freud and the fateful (ibid), there is no decisive moment although perhaps there is a decisive era in which to act before all living memory of a certain past is forever lost. As such the photographic practice needs to be performed as there is a sense that this is a life’s work or indeed one’s fate.

The uncanny imagery created through practice does have a likeness to the photographer having an unconscious knowledge that intuitively (ibid) an image could be made and may do so with the presence of the calculated chance.

The photo project has a sense of the double, the person in the contemporary being linked by identical mitochondrial DNA to the person discovered in the past. When the “double” is symbolically viewed as “the uncanny harbinger of death” (ibid) then this must raise serious concern. In a sense, there is a harbinger effect. By not completing this life’s work, the spectre of found ancestors will finally be lost. Also, the photograph becomes not so much what it is a picture of, but what it can represent (ibid), indeed by the abstract post process.

“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.” (ibid). This effect is experienced in the photo project but rather than unnerving there is another emotional response considered thus far as identification with ancestors.

What is clear is that when the personal element is removed a template should be possible to create for others to use in their own particular circumstances. If an example was constructed it could be the unborn child, on growing up identifying say with a parent who perished in an event such as 9/11. Any other catastrophic event on a world stage ought to create possibilities for the adoption of the technique.

“the photograph of the missing being, as Sontag says, will touch me like the delayed rays of a star.” quoted in (ibid) This nicely equates to the photo project, of the missing persons discovered, and of the inner/outer space depictions that appear in some of the abstracted images.

Also, the comment (ibid) “The nature of the medium as an indexical imprint of the object means that any photographed object or person has a ghostly presence53, an uncanniness that might be likened to the return of the dead”

In the photo project, the photo is of a living person who identifies with the ghostly presence of the ancestor. As for the tension of the implicit and lack of explicit (ibid) the photo project can appear more didactic than this as a ghost appears as a ghost image. In that sense a figurative image from the abstract. That much is unresolved in the photo project.

The White Cube Diaries

The Uncanny has been described as something simultaneously familiar and foreign. (Anderson, 2013) A product of intellectual uncertainty Jentsch quoted in (ibid).

In Freudian terms, Unheimlich represents everything that was intended to remain secret that has come out into the open (ibid). There is more than one interpretation to be found in the references here and elsewhere.

When we encounter these things there is provoked a suppressed primordial fear, resulting in intellectual uncertainty and causes a great sense of repulsion and distress. (ibid)

While objects so designed create distress and repulsion, they may lead to fascination and allure, (ibid)


Anderson, L. (2013) The Uncanny: where psychology meets artThe White Cube Diaries. Available at: .

Middleton, N. (2005) Photography and the Uncanny. Available at: .

Smith, S. M. and Sliwinski, S. (2017) Photography and the Optical Unconcious. eBook. Chicago, US: Duke University Press. Available at:

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