Surrealism Photography Essay

Surrealist photography has come a long way. While Photoshop and other post-processing programs make it fairly easy to create surrealist photographs, back in the days of darkroom photography there were no computers to help you. All surrealist effects had to be either done in camera or in the darkroom – a feat that is not very easy to accomplish. From the famous Man Ray to the more recent Erik Johansson, it’s interesting to see where surrealist photography started and what it has morphed into throughout the years.

Man Ray

While Man Ray worked with a wide variety of mediums, he is most well-known for his surrealist photography and photograms (which he called rayographs). For those not familiar with photograms, they are photographic images made without a camera. You can create a photogram yourself by setting yourself up in a darkroom, placing objects on top of photo paper, and then exposing both the paper and the objects to light. Once you develop the photo paper, you’ll see that there are white shapes where the objects sat. Photograms are an easy way to get acquainted with surreal and abstract “photography” in the darkroom.

While Photoshop was not an option in Man Ray’s day (1890-1976), this didn’t stop him from creating some of the most influential surrealist photographs of all time. He used solarization, double exposures, montages, and combination printing to create works of art that left viewers scratching their heads.

Maurice Tabard

Maurice Tabard (1897-1984) is another notable surrealist photographer. Like Man Ray, he used the techniques of solarization, double exposures and montages to create eerie and unnerving photographic images. He began his work as a portrait, fashion and advertising photographer, while experimenting with surrealist images in his personal work. A room with an eye, a lady who seems to be turning into a tree, and ghostly solarized portraits are only a small portion of the surrealist work he created.

Hans Bellmer

Hans Bellmer (1902-1975), born in Germany, is most well known for his unsettling portraits of mechanical dolls that he created himself. He originally studied engineering and was incredibly interested in politics, yet gave that up to pursue a career as an artist. He had read about Surrealism and sent photographs of his dolls to other artists, who immediately praised his work. This spurred the collaboration with other artists and led to his work on a few more books, ranging from his own photography to experimental poetry to illustrations of erotic stories.

Dora Maar

Dora Maar (1907-1997) is best known for being one of Picasso’s lovers. Together, she and Picasso studied with Man Ray, which could be why Dora Maar became so interested in Surrealism. Her famous Portrait of Ubu became well-known within the Surrealist movement, being a photograph that many have speculated to be a armadillo fetus; Maar declined to let the public know exactly what the subject of the photograph was. This photograph is a good example of what Surrealist photography is when it doesn’t include the use of double exposures or solarization; the image itself is strange and unusual, and while it may be grotesque, continues to fascinate a wide audience.

Erik Johansson

Let’s fast forward to the modern day. Erik Johansson is a Swedish photographer and retoucher, born in 1985. He is lucky enough to be born in a day and age in which post-processing techniques are used widely throughout the photographic industry, and lucky enough to have an imagination that allows him to create beautiful surreal images. He began his career as an artist primarily through drawing; when he became interested in photography, his love of drawing as well as computers led to him experimenting with different post-processing techniques. Instead of simply being finished with a photograph once the moment was captured, this became a canvas on which to create surreal scenes that are crafted so beautifully that it’s almost hard to believe they aren’t real.

Christopher McKenney

While Erik Johansson creates beautiful, dreamy surrealist images, Christopher McKenney takes dreamy surrealism and puts a darker twist on it. His photographs often feature a human whose body is missing and face is covered; the face is either obscured by a sheet, covered with a paper bag on fire, or hidden behind a mirror (among many others). In these photographs, the entire body is often not seen. All of his images are post-processed to have eerie, de-saturated color tones, and are typically shot in the middle of the woods or on a back country road.

Stephen Criscolo

Stephen Criscolo is a 20-year-old self-taught photographer. While all of his images are heavily edited via Photoshop, he has had no formal photographic training. Instead of creating surrealist images within our own world, each of his images seems to be from an entirely fictional planet created within his own mind. Jellyfish and planets are both reoccurring themes in Criscolo’s work, along with images that tend to be monochromatic in color (primarily blue hues, primarily purple hues, etc).

What type of surrealist photography do you prefer? Are you drawn more towards the original, darkroom manipulations, or the wide variety of new options on Photoshop and other post-processing programs these days? While surrealist photography has certainly come a long way, it can be argued that Photoshop makes it almost too easy to create images that once were only able to be made by professionals in a darkroom setting. Even so, it can be hard to argue against the fact that both original and modern surrealist photography requires a lot of originality and creativity. Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

While working as a doctor in a military psychiatric hospital during World War I, Frenchman André Breton experienced disturbed soldiers discussing “bizarre images as if they had taken dictation from a genius who had possessed them while reason slept.” In a seemingly parallel universe, one far from the destruction of the war, the art world was turning its back on Dadaism. It had become too academic, too much a part of the bourgeois mainstream it had by definition rebelled against. Dadaism soon morphed into surrealism, spearheaded by Breton and influenced by what he – and the world – had seen during a war that killed sixteen million people. Breton became obsessed with the idea of unconscious autonomy, free association, and the “irrational as the source of creativity and of freedom from any kind of restraint.” In 1924, he wrote the first Surrealist Manifesto. “Completely against the tide… in a violent reaction against the impoverishment and sterility of thought processes that resulted from centuries of rationalism, we turned toward the marvelous and advocated it unconditionally,” he declared, birthing a movement.

Just as the movement’s literature ignored traditional techniques and opted for unstructured, “automatic” writing, as surrealist painters explored illusions and dreams and twisted the idea of everyday normality, photographers scorned the idea that the camera created the final word. They incorporated the primary topics of surrealist focus – dreams, illusions, mystery, eroticism – into photography. By using unconventional techniques, like multiple exposures, solarization, distortion, and montage, these surrealist photographers turned a previously mechanical tool into a medium via which they could express the avant-garde framework of the surrealist movement. The visual language of the camera had been transformed from an instrument of representation to a medium of artistic creation not unlike its supposed “higher-up,” painting.

Few artists exemplified this new photographic structure better than Man Ray. Born in Pennsylvania and raised just outside New York City, he began using the camera as, ironically, a mechanical tool to photograph his paintings and mixed media artworks. In 1921, he moved to Paris and set up a photography studio. There, he met Pablo Picasso and was introduced to Dadaism through another close friend, Tristan Tzara. Man Ray’s process, which he named after himself (Rayographs), involved an already progressive method utilizing objects placed directly on gelatin silver paper to produce an abstracted representation of everyday items. It was only fitting, then, that he’d be swept away by the surrealist movement just a few years later. He had already challenged the notion of photography and the creative, mechanical possibilities of the camera. This would be pushed even further after 1924’s Surrealist Manifesto and the official establishment of such an innovative movement.

Man Ray’s most famous photographs combined non-traditional photographic techniques with surrealist principles. As a result, he created images that bridge the line between photographs, which were seen as inherently truthful, and otherworldly dreams. For example, in “Observatory Time: The Lovers,” he utilizes a montage technique that combines his own painting with a photograph of his lover, Lee Miller. There is seemingly no context or logic to the image – the female subject is naked and faceless, next to a chessboard; in the sky over a body of water, floats a giant pair of lips. Here, Man Ray truly creates an imaginative, dreamlike world using unconventional photographic processes, combining his own colorless painting with multiple other photos. The resulting work is almost nightmarish and confusing, the woman in a mysterious world entirely unlike our own.

Man Ray confronts the surrealist focus on eroticism more directly with works like “Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow.” Utilizing another non-traditional technique, the image is made up of multiple exposures depicting a nude female with her arms raised over her head. Again, there is an otherworldly element to this image. The face is partly obscured, proportions are distorted, and the solid black background forces the viewer to directly experience the overlapping line and shape of the body; special attention is drawn to the exaggerated breasts and contrasted genitals. The nude form, nearly always female, appears regularly through Man Ray’s and other surrealist works. In his image “The Violin of Ingres,” a nude woman is painted to resemble a violin. Her body, quite plainly, becomes an instrument to be used and played like an object.

Solarization was another experimental technique that frequently appears in Man Ray’s photographs; the photographer would intentionally reverse the light and dark tones on his negatives. In his portraits of, Gertrude Stein, Lee Miller, and Jacqueline Goddard, Man Ray photographs in a very traditional and straightforward style and only later adds a distorting twist to the image through the process of solarization. The surrealist obsession with visions and reveries is also very much a part of these images. The viewer is left entirely alone to determine the circumstance of the photograph. Attempts to unravel details in order to decipher a narrative – the identity of the woman, her thoughts, her mental state – are entirely useless. Man Ray, in line with the other surrealists of his time, had no qualms about potential confusion in the viewer. Surrealism rejected any traditional notion of right or wrong, normality, reality, in use of the camera itself as well as in the images created through it. This was all ignored in favor of alternative photographic methods that assisted Man Ray’s creation of illusions and hallucinations. These, in turn, reflected the movement’s obsession with the subconscious, Freud, and imagination.

The Surrealist community was slowed in the wake of the political turmoil following the Second World War, however, the surrealist movement fully unraveled in 1966 when Breton died. The photography world had all but exploded when surrealism was fading, with the rise of commercial and fashion markets and an increased respect for fine art photography. Yet the avant-garde nature of surrealist photography remained timeless, allowing photographers like Man Ray to publish books, work as a fashion photographer for the likes of Vogue, and be continually exhibited beyond his death in 1976. His lifetime body of work displays a combination of experimental techniques and overarching surrealist principles, making him a chief contributor to both photography as an artistic medium and the surrealist movement. Breton had said surrealism was complete nonconformity. “The marvelous is always beautiful, anything marvelous is beautiful, in fact only the marvelous is beautiful,” he wrote in 1924. It was a fitting statement for a movement that utilized photography as an art form in a way that had never been done before, creating nonrepresentational images of dreams and nightmares.


Meghan Garven is a second year student at the School of Visual Arts, studying photography with honors. She is a freelance photographer who also works part-time at Sasha Wolf Gallery and her research interests include Fauvism and Modernist photography.


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