“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of ourselves; the world is disturbingly doubled and the home that should be our source of security appears to have been replaced by a substitute that is the same in every way but somehow not the same at all.’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






Project Three

Context & Narrative Part Three

Project 3

Self-absented portraiture

Telling the viewer something of who I am. Using other people as stand-ins, in a metaphorical sense, or conveying self by other means. We’re given these examples to look at:-

Maria Kapajeva

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman

An ongoing project to ‘open debate on imagery of women in contemporary society in the context of the historical, cultural bias and the global changes we are each going through’. Portraits of her peers, represented a new generation of young intellectuals who are unafraid to take risks or to break the rules. Women photographed in their own working environment. Looking at the camera with clear eyes. Looking ready to engage and debate.

I read the Photoparley article where Kapajeva talked about her creative process with Sharon Boothroyd and the changes she has made to follow her passion for photography . From Estonia, she went to the University of the Creative Arts in Farnham to study photography – leaving her job and own flat to start from scratch.

I was interested in the way she talked about two ways of working as an artist – to “ …. start from a technique and develop/master/transform it” or “to start from an idea and find a technique for it”. She thinks most of her works follow the latter path and I think that’s my path as well. Kapajeva also says that it isn’t her intention to involve herself in her work as the main character, although she is in it of course as it’s her work. I was so pleased to read as well her comment about the massive volume of information artists all confront and how we need to learn how to select the right subject and focus on it. I was complaining a while ago about how photography teaching must have changed so much over the years because there are so many more photographers to learn about and absorb.

I was also fascinated by the way in which Karpajeva used the technique of cross-stitching and quilting for her series I Am Usual Woman – making a quilt from a selection of website images that recommend how women seeking husbands should be photographed. She links this with the distinction between creative work done by men and women in the European and Russian side of the world e.g. painting icons is a most privileged art for men whilst women are unrecognised for the embroidering they do for domestic items and for the church. Karpejeva uses such creative ideas to continually look at and question the way in which cultures shape and view women and how women respond to this.

Sophie Calle

Take Care of Yourself (2007)

I wrote about this work here . The 107 views on the email from her lover add layers and layers of meaning and subtlety to the work. It’s almost like exposure therapy to desensitize response to such an email, as well, of course, as heaping reprimands on the head of the its writer! That apart, in my own experience, it’s the kind of thing that women often do with their friends when such a situation occurs so there’s an air of reality to it even though (I’m guessing) it was all carefully orchestrated. Quite a collaborative effort.

Anna Fox

I wrote about her here  and that post  includes a link to a video of Fox talking about the Cockroach Diary and other work. Looking at Cockroach Diary again, I’m reminded that this project “marked the start of her exploration of autobiographical story telling, and her questioning of the power of the camera in documentary practice”. Remember – to her, documentary is ‘telling a story about the truth’, which fits with the genre that seems to be named more regularly now as ‘subjective documentary’.

Nigel Shafran

Washing Up (2000)

There’s mention in the Handbook of captions and I’m sure I’ve seen some somewhere where he names what was eaten – maybe it’s in the book. Shafran uses everyday scenes of daily life and “gives the viewer a point of resonance and a sense of shared experience in the commonplace activity of ‘doing the washing up’”. I actually looked closely at the images to work out if it was the same areas in different lights/times of day or different ones but couldn’t come to a conclusion on that.


  • Did it surprise you that this was taken by a man? Why?
  • In your opinion does gender contribute to the creation of an image?
  • What does this series achieve by not including people?
  • Do you regard them as interesting ‘still life’ compositions?

To be honest, no thought came into my head concerning the gender of the person who made these photographs. I live with a man who does the washing up and other household chores (more often than I do sometimes) and is also a keen photographer, can quite easily imagine him taking a photograph of the washing up. I didn’t think it was a woman either because I was too busy wondering what the rest of the house/flat looked like! Looking at other series on Shafran’s website I was very taken with Ruth on the Phone (1995-2004) because my husband could create a book of his many photographs over the years of me at the computer (think he’s trying to give me a message but we won’t go into that!).

Does gender contribute to the creation of an image? I think it can. I’ve certainly had discussions with fellow students regarding landscapes and whether women make different photographs.  Of course we’ve also had discussions regarding ‘the gaze’ and whether a woman’s gaze is different from that of a man. I’ve recently been reading a lot about Francesca Woodman and whether she was a femininist photographer or not. Would someone look at my photographs and think they had been taken by a woman rather than by a man? If so why? I’d be interested to know whether my work is seen as ‘feminine’. Bearing in mind of course that I have written, and taken photographs, as a man (see Assignment 2)

I think the absence of people can provide a more blank canvas upon which the viewer can project their own story. Do I regard the images as interesting ‘still life’ compositions? I wouldn’t have called them that. If anything I would see them as documentary images. It’s may well be that Shafran arranged the kitchen areas in those particular ways but they don’t look ‘arranged’, they look natural, almost banal and yet interesting for all that. They have a certain professional style about them so couldn’t be called vernacular photography. Remembering of course that Shafran has also worked in the commercial photography world and so he can bring those techniques into play.  I’ve thought about that previously when looking at the work of Laura Letinsky whose work also alludes to the presence of people in domestic spaces whilst not including them. Letinsky also does commercial work. I’m thinking at the moment that the difference is to do with lighting. Her style is different though and not auto-biographical. I have previously written that I want to experiment more with her work and will post some images in due course.

Back to Nigel Shafran – I found him an enjoyable photographer to follow and there’s an interview here from 2009 that I enjoyed watching where he talks about his photography books. Shafran’s work does prove that even the most ordinary environment can be made interesting if you have the right skills and creative approach. I also think he’d be a good photographer to talk with about creating photo books.

Some interim conclusions

On the theme of – what have I absorbed for myself from looking at these photographers?

  • Using other forms of Art and Craft to add to the layers of photographic work. I’m very much attracted towards that but have this anxiety regarding ‘not being artistic’ which leads to fear of failure.
  • Getting other people to engage in a collaborative project, whilst still remaining ‘producer/director’ overall.
  • An autobiographical project is subjective but it can also have universal application. To me it’s important as well to retain my own sense of truth even though viewers may add their own layer of perception to it. Additionally I think it’s also important to know when I’m steering away from my own sense of self-truth to add the colour of drama to my work.
  • Ordinary life and reality can provide stories just as interesting as dramatic events.

Of course, I was led on to looking at other photographers and adding to my evergrowing Pinterest Boards and collection of PDFs (and books!). I’ll refer to some of these when writing about research for Assignment 3 and won’t forget about Laura Letinsky.

5th August 2015