Sunday, 7 September 2014

Surrealism and photography

I’ve mentioned surrealism and photography and the gist of the responses is: “That sounds interesting – I guess you can manipulate the photos using photoshop.” And there’s the problem in a nutshell – in popular culture surrealism means those weird paintings with droopy clocks and strange figures – and I couldn’t for the life of me see how that had anything to do with Eugene Atget.

So – back to first principles. In 50 Art Ideas you really need to know (Hodge, 2013) Susie Hodge describes the key idea of surrealism as “Liberating the creative powers of the unconscious mind” and in How to survive modern art  (Hodge, 2009) she explains that surrealism had two strands in attempting to achieve this aim. One – perhaps the more familiar – attempted to capture images of dreams as in the classic images of Dali and Magritte. The other attempted to work instinctively, without thinking, an idea called Automatism. Miro is perhaps one of the more famous exponents of this style.

These ideas were based on the psychological theories of Freud and according to Hopkins (Hopkins, 2004) the aim of the Surrealists was to change society – as I understand by highlighting and making use of the realities of the world of which we were not consciously aware. Because the perception at the time was that a camera was an entirely objective recording instrument it was seen as a form of automatism, and therefore ideally suited to Surrealist purposes – in the process it resulted in a surreal view of the world, in which previously invisible  or unseen things were brought to the fore and the familiar was made  strange. As Sontag notes “Surrealism lies at the heart of the photographic enterprise: in the very creation of a duplicate world, of a reality in the second degree, narrower but more dramatic than the one perceived by natural vision.” (Sontag, 2008) It is in this spirit that many Cartier-Bresson and Brassai photos can be read, and notwithstanding the reservations expressed by Abigail Solomon-Godeau (Solomon-Godeau, 2009) Atget can be seen in this light too. Although he certainly did not have the Surrealist manifesto in mind when he took his photos the fact the he concentrated on the everyday, and took huge numbers of images, means his work is easily susceptible to a Surrealist reading.

Man Ray, on the other hand, tends towards the dream/imagination strand. Using a range of abstract and novel techniques such as “rayographs”, solarisation, multiple exposures camera movement and light trails he produced a range of photos showing the effects of a mix of chance and planning. He also used staged photos – perhaps most notably with Le Violin d’Ingres and acted as a sort of house photographer for surrealism, capturing portraits of many of its leading lights. The manipulation of photographs was taken even further by another surrealist, Raoul Ubac, who resorted to burning and otherwise damaging the film emulsion to achieve his dreamlike effects. (Surrealisme, 2012)

In the context of this course it is the work in the former strand that has the most resonance, with key features being:

  • a tendency to photograph the everyday and ordinary (and by editing to extract those that show the extraordinary aspects of the ordinary)
  • photography by instinct rather than planning
  • an eye for the slightly absurd, incongruous or ironic.

One final point is worth noting. A criticism of Surrealism is that no-one has ever effectively come up with a definition of a style that incorporates the various artists and photographers that have been associated with it. In this sense it is perhaps better seen as a tactic – in truth a tactic on which much street photography is predicated – than a genre. In this context it has been, and probably remains, hugely influential.


Hodge, S., 2009. How to survive modern art. 1st ed. London: Tate Publishing.

Hodge, S., 2013. 50 Art Ideas you really need to know. Kindle ed. London: Quercus Publishing.

Hopkins, D., 2004. Dada and Surrealism: A very short introduction. Kindle ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Solomon-Godeau, A., 2009. Cannon Fodder: Authoring Eugène Atget. In: Photogrpahy at the Dock. s.l.:s.n., p. 28–51.

Sontag, S., 2008. On Photography. Penguin Modern Classics ed. London: Penguin.

Surrealisme, P. d. l., 2012. Photographie dans la Surrealisme. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 07 September 2014].


de Gouvion Saint-Cyr, A., 2011. Brassai in America 1957. English ed. Paris: Flammarion.

Foresta, M., 2006. Man Ray. London: Thames and Hudson.

Galassi, P. & al, e., 2006. Henri Cartier-Bresson:the man, the image& the world. Paperback ed. London: Thames and Hudson.

Gautrand, J.-C., 2008. Brassai: Paris. Koln: Taschen.

Krauss, R., 1981. The Photographic Conditions of Surrealism. October, 19(Winter), pp. 3-34.

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