Uncanny Unease: The Digital Eye at the Henry Art Gallery

The digital eye is an uncanny one, at least as it stands in the Henry Art Gallery’s exhibition The Digital Eye: Photographic Art in the Electronic Age. Although this is not true of every work of art included in the show, a substantial number of the images create the distinct sense of unease that defines uncanniness through not only the subject matter depicted, but more often through the overtly disjointed way the photographic imagery appears within the frame.

Simen Johan. Untitled #83 (from the And Nothing was to be Trusted series). 1999. Toned gelatin silver print. Collection of Marita Holdaway. © Simen Johan. Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York.

The doll-like baby captured in Simen Johan’s Untitled #83 (from the And Nothing was to be Trusted series), with a menacing expression and a devil-like crown of black hair, would be disturbing independently. However, the image takes on a hyperreal quality through its heightened contrast: the fire burns with a radiating intensity that makes its innocent role atop a birthday cake lost in exchange for the threat of imminent danger. Likewise, the toddler becomes a ravenous, cyborg-like figure that belongs squarely in the uncanny valley, its eyes more robotic than human, its face shrouded in shadows, staring into nothingness.

Sigmund Freud presented one of the earliest and most longstanding definitions of the uncanny: a frightening instance that bears a relationship to the familiar. Occurrences such as prosthetic and severed limbs, ghosts and the dead, cyborgs, robots, doppelgängers and automatons fall within this understanding of the uncanny valley.  The arm that is a part of the human form seems so normal when attached to a person, yet becomes something else entirely when detached. The Addams Family took advantage of the latter’s affect through the “Thing” character, a natural fit within the show’s comically repulsive tropes.  Likewise, a prosthetic arm on an otherwise natural body can also be an jarring visual experience when unexpectedly taking the place of the skin and appendages we expect.

Still from The Addams Family. Image from addamsfamily.com

Many of the standard items included on the uncanny list appear throughout The Digital Eye.  Wendy McMurdo’s Helen, Backstage, Merlin Theater depicts a child and her doppelgänger posing as though there were a mirror between them that disappeared.  Herbert Bayer’s Lonely Metropolitan incorporates disembodied eyes and arms. Takeshi Murata’s amorphous form from a photographed film still in 001 and Jason Salavon’s Every Playboy Centerfold, The 1970s both create ghostlike-forms from their otherwise (relatively) ordinary subject matter.  When viewed in its entirety, The Digital Eye encompasses a fairly complete index of the uncanny valley.
Image: Wendy McMurdo. Helen, Backstage, Merlin Theatre (The Glance). 1995. Pigmented inkjet print. Courtesy of the artist. Image from henryart.org.

However, the more interesting relationship between the uncanny and this exhibition manifests more subtly, through the techniques employed within some of The Digital Eye’s most captivating works. Like many manmade objects, a particular fascination comes along with a photographic spectacle that is not immediately decipherable; the same way one stares from atop the Hoover Dam and attempts to fathom how mid-century technology enabled this sublime structure’s production, a similar curiosity arises when staring into a photograph that appears too composed to be real. Although the increasing prevalence of Photoshop may have dulled this effect in recent years, a fascinatingly unknown quality remains beneath the surface of a digital photograph that seems too composed to be true.

Julie Blackmon. Powerade (from the series Domestic Vacations). 2005. Pigmented inkjet print. Courtesy of the artist and G. Gibson Gallery, Seattle. Image from henryart.org

In The Digital Eye, Julie Blackmon’s pigmented inkjet print Powerade (From the series Domestic Vacations) makes this effect its focal point, integrating otherwise mundane imagery into a disturbing image that commands not so much a look as a blatant stare.  A mere glance at the photograph would suggest a boy playing in a yard. However, with any closer inspection, the red ball, the boy’s back and the blue bottle of Powerade ensnare the on-looking eye, naturally pulling its attention towards these objects existing on an overtly distinct plane from their surroundings.  Looking more closely reveals the “yard” as an estranged garden of sorts, more likely to house gnomes or the Fountain of Youth than the swing set and bicycle that one would expect to find in an ordinary boy’s world.  A sense of uncertainty pervades the entire image; what initially seemed familiar appears strange and hyperreal.  Despite the absence of an object of decided uncanniness, Powerade belongs in the valley as much as any disembodied appendage.

Although psychoanalytic theory has become largely dismissed as irreverent in contemporary society, the prominence of the uncanny within this photography show is not without significance: feared uncertainty prevails in our present moment. The indecisive politics, government upheavals too complex to read from afar, and an unpredictable economy only offer stability in their constant presence; every week similar stories surface in the news, but with conflicting endings. In this sense, The digital eye is also a reflective one, offering a mirror into a state of being less defined by its subject matter and more acutely understood through an inexplicable composition of elements that creates unease without resolution.