“Theatres of the Real” and the ‘Uncanny’

Lowry, J et al (2009) Theatres of the Real. UK: Photoworks

When I first opened the book Theatres of the Real (2009) I was surprised to see how varying was the work of the eight featured contemporary photographers – Sarah Dobai, Annabel Elgar, Tom Hunter, Sarah Pickering, Nigel Shafran, Clare Strand, Mitra Tabrizian  and Danny Treacy. None of it is documentary photography as such in terms of authenticity or aiming to present some form of objective ‘truth’ (although I no longer believe anyway that such exists, certainly in terms of ‘truth’ about they way in which human beings act and interact in the world). However, the work covered does convey various aspects of contemporary society and it all shares a way of looking that portrays the world ‘as a kind of stage set in which we as actors play out our individual and collective stories’. In the Foreword (p. 4) , David Chandler and Inge Henneman suggest the term ‘post-documentary’ to describe these photographic critiques of traditional documentary’s claims of objectivity and truth. To me, these photographers here accept that documentary is a story about the truth, created from a subjective viewpoint and using certain strategies, including theatricality and staging, to denote this. I sometimes wonder if it is too mannered, too explicit regarding staging etc and I admire the skill and cleverness without feeling any emotional involvement with ‘the story’. Everything is too carefully arranged to bear much resemblance to ‘real’ life as I experience it.

There was one point of view that really interested me. Joanna Lowry’s essay “An Imaginary Place” refers to the concept of the ‘uncanny’:

‘…. We encounter the other and it appears in the guise of ourselves; the world is disturbingly doubled and the home that should be our source of security appears to have been replaced by a substitute that is the same in every way but somehow not the same at all.’ (Lowry 2009:82)

There is a link here with the concept of alienation and the way in which it has been linked, in turn, with ‘ the theorisation of modernity’. Anthony Vidler is referred to as being ‘Perhaps the most influential exponent of this idea’. The preface of Vidler’s book The Architectural Uncanny: Essays of the Unhomely (1994) can be accessed here. He uses the structure of modern architecture as a metaphor for this sense of the uncanny which is almost like Baudrillard’s concept of the simulacrum but not quite as Vidler appears to be including the psycho analytic component which was grounded in Freud’s theories on the ‘uncanny’ and the aesthetics of the ‘fearful’ with two opposing definitions of the German word Heimlich – the one belonging to the house, homely, friendly and familiar and the other concealed and secret.  Further information here.

Tom Hunter refers to ‘uncanny’ in his statement regarding Holly Street Voids with their sense of once being lived in but left hurriedly and I can see that in other images from these photographers. For instance, in Nigel Shafran’s kitchen, the washing up, categorised in terms of the meals the utensils were used for, is piled up just that bit too neatly for me almost like an advertisement yet not quite. The young people in Clare Strand’s series Gone Astray Portraits (2003)  (inspired by a Charles Dickens text) look uncomfortable and out of place in both their modern clothes and against the C19th style painterly backdrop. There is much about poses and how clothes define and perpetuate sense of identity – for the wearer and the observer.

Lowry refers to melodrama as underpinning photographic practices using the theatrical as a cultural vehicle for analysis of contemporary society, with the set becoming an ‘actor’ as well, even if it might be an actual room organised to look like a set.

‘Every aspect of the décor, the lighting, the furniture and the props is designed to express and reflect the social and psychological state of the characters and the position that they find themselves in.’ (p. 92)

She refers to melodramatic characters often having blank and unresponsive expressions, as in Sarah Dobai’s Short Story Piece (film and accompanying stills  ) and also Model 280 where two films are projected side by side – filmed landscape with a representation of a family scene in the interior of a car, the juxtaposition of a ‘real’ outside and a psychological inner space.

There is both closed and open narrative – static scenes that appear to have no precursor or onward flow as opposed to work such as that of Tom Hunter who references both painters and earlier stories with similar themes in his modern tableaux. I have written about Tom Hunter before, here. His Woman Reading a Possession Order references Vermeer, whilst the series Life and Death in hackney reinterprets paintings by Millais and Waterhouse, amongst others. There is an odd conjunction here because Hunter’s beautifully rendered images portray death alongside decaying buildings/architecture but in a landscape where greenery is endeavouring to take over remnants of buildings. The images are open enough for the viewer to place their own narrative over what can be seen and imagined.

Jan Baetens looks to this aspect of narrative in his essay (Baetens 2009:97 ) pointing out that film is expected to have a narrative flow whereas photography is associated with a moment in time. His exploration of this dichotomy is complicated at first reading (Baetens 2009:98) but he points to the tile of the book itself covering these two dimensions of , setting and staging – the stage where something can happen or is about to happen and the story being told. Baetens quotes John Grierson’s definition of documentary as ‘the creative treatment of actuality’, which entails ‘storytelling’, such that the viewer will be understand the content and ‘sympathize with it through a process of identification’ so that ‘the attention span of the spectator will increase dramatically’.

At the same time, Baetens points out that the photographers in Theatres of the Real , despite their differences, do suggest some common critical attitudes towards the use of staging – their various techniques include ‘enhanced artificiality’ and exaggerate storytelling devices ‘in the hope of short-circuiting’ them. ‘For if narrative and storytelling help the spectator to make sense of the real, this sense is always biased, it reflects the strong editorial intervention of the maker and thus a veiling rather than an unveiling of reality’. This point is taking me back to my comments in the first paragraph regarding ‘cleverness’.  These photographers obviously had a belief in something to be driven towards adopting this approach whilst making it clear that they are telling a story about some aspect of reality. This book isn’t a new book, and I accept the photographers covered will have likely moved on to other ways of portraying their view of contemporary life but, still, that notion of ‘the uncanny’ appeals to me and I am keeping it in mind in planning for Assignment 5.



Baetens, J (2009) “The Creative Treatment of Narrative: A Poetics of the In-Between” in Lowry, J et al Theatres of the Real . UK,:Photoworks. pp 97-101.
Lowry, J (2009) “An Imaginary Place” in Lowry, J et al Theatres of the Real . UK: Photoworks. pp 81-95.
Lowry, J et al (2009) Theatres of the Real, UK,:Photoworks
Vidler, A (1994) the Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely .MIT Press