negative facespace: exploring the uncanny valley

Negative FaceSpace: Exploring The Uncanny Valley

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“The doll was so utterly devoid of imagination that what we imagined for it was inexhaustible.......they let themselves be dreamed.” (Rainer Maria Rilke)

The phrase 'uncanny valley' originated in 1970 with the Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori. He observed that as his robots developed more human-like facial features they tended to elicit feelings of revulsion, creepiness, unease and fear and the concept is now well established in the field of aesthetics. In psychology the term automatonophobia is formally used for the fear of humanoid-looking faces or figures. 

A fear of dolls, known as pediophobia (not to be confused with pedophobia, the fear of infants or children) and a fear of puppets (pupaphobia) are subsections of automatonophobia and were first described in the 19th century. This was a time when innovations in toy-making were gaining ground, such as using human hair, eyes that opened and closed, and faces depicting a wider variety of emotional states, thus loosening the psychological barrier between observer and observed. No longer were dolls (and puppets) guaranteed to be perceived as safe abstract renditions of little humans. The edge of the uncanny valley had been reached.

More recently, research has shown that those children and adults with a tendency to be more attuned to potential threats, such as those suffering with neuroticism and anxiety disorders, appear to have a lower threshold to the uncanny valley. Indeed, studies have shown some people to also have an increased tendency to perceive faces in non-humanoid inanimate objects. Interestingly, however, there are further studies suggesting that other primate species do not display any uncanny valley effect; it might be a peculiarly human phenomenon.

And so in this on-going project, I attempt to meld psychological science and aesthetics via photography.

Portrait of a toy clown with exaggerated features, surrounded by blackness
Portrait of a doll with intensely staring eyes and strands of hair across the face, surrounded by blackness
Grainy portrait of a sleeping doll photographed from a low angle , surrounded by blackness
A puppet hiding its face with its hands with just one eye visible, against a black background
Disembodied papier mache head surrounded by blackness
Portrait of grotesque doll with one eye open and one eye closed surrounded by blackness
The head of a fur covered rocking horse viewed from the front with light shining on only one side of the head, surrounded by blackness
Close portrait of a puppet clown with face partially obscured by clothing, surrounded by blackness
Two eyes and nose from a dolls face peer out from a black background
Interpretation of a display of puppets designed by João Paulo Seara Cardoso
Close crop portrait of a doll with mesmerising, shining eyes
Portrait of a grotesque looking doll with a split in her head looking intently forward, surrounded by blackness
A vintage doll, eyes closed, holding arms in the air, surrounded by blackness
Portrait of a grotesque looking vintage doll surrounded by blackness
A slightly lopsided clown's face peers out from a black background
Half portrait of a Disney Elsa doll peering out from the right edge of the frame with light focused on a single eye, surrounded by blackness
Portrait view of a bald doll with eyes staring ahead, surrounded by blackness
Portrait of a glamorous looking doll's face surrounded by blackness
Partly lit Noddy face with eyes looking sideways surrounded by blackness

© 2023 Gary Hill. All rights reserved.