The Uncanny as we Picture it: Freud and the Photographer

Describing himself as “a fetishist for reflections, saturated colors, details and religious icons,” Seigar is a photographer, a high school teacher, and an English philologist. His ‘Plastic People’ series is “a study on anthropology and sociology that focuses on the humanisation of the mannequins he finds in the shop windows all over the world.”

There is an unsettling beauty to his portraits of the inanimate, reminiscent of Freud’s exploration of the uncanny. With Freud in mind, Seigar joins Generally Gothic to share his plastic people and discuss his relationship with the gothic.

Published in 1919, ‘The Uncanny’, by the Austrian founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), is available to read, free, online here. Whilst I absolutely encourage you to do so, it’s a little dense, so I’ll give you the basics…

In response to Ernst Jentsch’s (German psychiatrist, 1867-1919) earlier essay, ‘On the Psychology of the Uncanny’ (1906), Freud’s own study, published the year Jentsch died, is far better known. Its aim is to define the uncanny, which it does through linguistics – dictionary definitions, etymologies, and translations – and literature, turning to works of fiction for examples of the uncanny in action. Itself essentially a piece of literary analysis, Freud’s ‘The Uncanny’ has become a staple text in critical theory in literary, film, and art studies.

Written in his native German, Freud originally used the word ‘unheimlich’, which has been translated to ‘uncanny’ in the English version of his paper despite more literally meaning ‘unhomely’. Determining what exactly the ‘unhomely’ is however, is no less complex than landing upon a singular definition of the uncanny. Generally speaking, Freud settles on it being something unfamiliar but recognisable. Amongst other unsettling descriptions and imagery, Freud includes the following definition of the ‘unheimlich’ from Daniel Sander’s Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache (1860):
“Unheimlich and motionless like a stone-image.” 

‘Sisters (Tenerife)’, Seigar © | With Permission

In their humanistic design, mannequins – ‘motionless like a stone-image’ – are innately uncanny. Their existence is unsettling to us by, as Jentsch (quoted by Freud) puts it, arousing “doubts whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might not be in fact animate.” Freud goes on to clarify that Jentsch is indeed referring “to the impression made by wax-work figures, artificial dolls and automatons.”

Photographed through glass from various angles, Seigar’s ‘Plastic People’ are layered with reflected imagery and whispered stories. He captures familiar, highstreet objects in the shop windows of Tenerife and reframes them into something unfamiliar, unsettling, uncanny…

With the exponential (and impressive and terrifying) advancement of technology and, particularly, A.I., ‘The Uncanny Valley’ (a term coined in the 1970’s) may sound more familiar than Freud’s uncanny to you. It is understood as a conceptual place within which exist these humanoid robots and artificial semblances of autonomy or consciousness, but ‘the valley’ is actually the curve of a graph. In the study of aesthetics, research has shown that humans respond with increasing positivity to robots in direct correlation with the latter’s ability to successfully mimic functions or qualities of the former. Somewhere between being tragic little machines and actual replicants, androids display a level of humanness that is more acutely imperfect in having gotten so close. This is the dip in the graph –  where a machine’s near total humanness is no longer observed as positive, but rather as unsettling and repulsive. I would like to suggest that this is because it reveals how closely to the monstrous we, as creatures, exist… How few steps further along we are, and how easy it is to create, or to it regress.

‘My Lee Remick, The Omen (Tenerife)’, Seigar © | With Permission

In terms of genre (in art, and life) the uncanny, and the valley, exist at the convergence of science fiction and the gothic. There is no better example of this hybrid than one of the principal works English gothic literature, and the very first science fiction novel published: Frankenstein (Mary Shelley, 1818). Interestingly, Seigar cites Frankenstein as the epitome of the gothic in his mind:
“I strongly believe that the most accurate example of the adjective ‘gothic’ is the book Frankenstein by Mary Shelley[. I]ts confessional tone conveyed through the epistolary form has always attracted me, and it’s one of my favorite books ever. I love communication in art, and I suppose letters get me because of that. The fact [that] these letters are written by different narrators is also a plus, we find ourselves trying to guess who is good[…].”

Seigar continues his definition of the gothic:
“Gothic is […] the fac[ial] expressions of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (1950), the intensity of Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) or in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), and the coldness of the evil character played by Antonio Banderas in The Skin I Live in (2011). 
“I find [the] gothic in The Weeknd’s voice, […] in the album Controlling Crowds (2009) by Archive, [in] the radical Impossible Princess (1997) by Kylie Minogue, or in the duet ‘This mess We’re In’ (2000) by PJ Harvey and Thom Yorke. In fact, everything Thom Yorke does is gothic for me, even his dancing.
Frida [Kahlo]’s painting representing ‘The Suicide of Dorothy Hale’ (1939) is also another way to define what ‘gothic’ means to me. 
“I believe [the] gothic is the darkest side of pop culture. I feel influenced by these references in my street photography and video art pieces.” 

‘This is for my people, my plastic people (Tenerife) (11)’, Seigar © | With Permission

What strikes me in Seigars’ understanding of the gothic is the focus upon uncanny human behaviour, and above all, stories. In fact, I am often asked, and asking, what the gothic is and, like Seigar, frequently turn to fiction as defining manifestations of a relatively abstract thing. As previously mentioned, Freud explores stories to better make sense of the uncanny. He suggests that:
“The Uncanny as it is depicted in literature, in stories and imaginative productions, […] is a much more fertile province than the uncanny in real life, for it contains the whole of the latter and something more besides, something that cannot be found in real life.”
This idea – the freedom of fiction – explains the uncanny potential of Seigar’s mannequins that, if absentmindedly passed by in a storefront, may have otherwise had little effect. In becoming art they encompass, as Freud put it “the whole of [reality] and something more besides.”

Seigar discusses the role of narrative in his photography, stating:
“I like photographs to speak for themselves and have clear messages. I want viewers to look directly at something and get it. I’m also into people’s response to my art.”
The comment section awaits! He continues:
“My photographs have become clearer and neat. However, I’m experimenting with the contents, I have found inspiration in real and personal lives. I want to tell stories I know.”

In the inclusion of reality in his art, the uncanny explodes through the visual stories of Seigar’s ‘Plastic People’. The uncanny, Freud states, “undoubtedly belongs to all that is terrible – to all that arouses dread and creeping horror.” If stories contains reality, and the uncanny exists in life, the unheimlich, like the gothic and Seigar’s photography, is a product of life, expressed through art.

‘More than you’ll ever know (Tenerife) (2)’, Seigar © | With Permission

Exhibiting his ‘Love is Love’ series at Ecléctico Café “with the help of four beautiful artists who are drag queens,” and ‘Tales of a City’, which was “selected in the Rafael Ramos García International Photography Awards,” at The University of La Laguna this year alone (both Tenerife), Seigar is now working on a short film. “I have been working on this piece for a long time now. Lots of different creators have been there with me[, s]o I feel grateful.” Most of all though, “[a]s I said, I want to tell stories.”
Follow Seigar on his website, instagram, or facebook.

This is the first blog post for the Of Monsters and Men series. Thoughts? Opinions? Suggestions? Let me know in the comment section!
Follow along on Instagram or Twitter for regular monstrous posts this month.
Check out last month’s Southern Spell posts below, including a southern monster segue piece in an analysis of True Detective, Season 1.
Between One Cap and One Period: Reading William Faulkner
True Detective Season 1 Analysis, Part 1: ‘ Time is a Flat Circle.’
‘True Detective’ Season 1 Analysis, Part 2: ‘ The Eternality of the Gothic’

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