Part 1 – The Surrealist Movement

The course brief was to comment on the shift away from Surrealism (as in Cartier-Bresson’s work), which the research point in the course materials required and whilst I was familiar with Cartier-Bresson, I knew nothing about Surrealism. I’ve made the following notes as part of my research using various sources on the subject:-

André Breton founded the Surrealist movement in 1924 when he wrote “The Surrealist Manifesto.”.

The ‘The Art Story’ website explains:

‘Breton defined Surrealism as “psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express – verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner – the actual functioning of thought.” What Breton is proposing is that artists bypass reason and rationality by accessing their unconscious mind. In practice, these techniques became known as automatism or automatic writing, which allowed artists to forgo conscious thought and embrace chance when creating art.’

The ‘Photography Office’ website describes the method:-

‘The Surrealists recognised the artistic potential of écriture automatique, or so-called “thought photography,” in the supposedly realistic recording of the camera….’

‘The work of Sigmund Freud was profoundly influential for Surrealists, particularly his book, The Interpretation of Dreams (1899). Freud legitimized the importance of dreams and the unconscious as valid revelations of human emotion and desires; his exposure of the complex and repressed inner worlds of sexuality, desire, and violence provided a theoretical basis for much of Surrealism’ (The Art Story).

There are many descriptions of Surrealism which seem to magnify its power to almost other-worldly proportions:-

‘The images obtained were prized precisely to the degree that they captured these moments of psychic intensity in provocative forms of unrestrained, convulsive beauty.’ (from the Met Museum website

‘Their organization writes, “Their efforts to tap the creative powers of the unconscious set Breton and his companions on a path that carried them through the territory of dreams, intoxication, chance, sexual ecstasy, and madness.”’ (

I think surrealism becomes more interesting when you understand the techniques used to create the images. A number of methods and ideas were used:-

  1. RayographsMan Ray created “rayographs”, or “rayogrammes”. Man Ray placed different objects on photographic paper then exposed them to light and developed the paper. The part covered by the object remained white, while the area around it turns black.
    man-ray-rayograph-ca-1922-865x577   man-rays-rayographie-rayograph-1925-and-untitled-rayograph-1922
    Man Ray Rayograph 1922      Man Ray Rayographs 1922 and 1925
  2. Solarisation – overexposure of the negatives e.g.
  3. Photomontages
  4. Multiple and/or long exposures
    ‘In his 1919 essay ‘The Uncanny’, Freud attempts to analyse why certain things disturb us – things that are not quite right and have a disquieting strangeness. He suggests a number of common examples of this, such as things that reoccur in doubles or many times where there should only be one. This includes the doppelganger or ‘double’, where an exact duplicate of a person suggests a loss of certainty about identity; as well as the apparently inexplicable repetitions such as when an image, word or number keep appearing as if by chance.’ (taken from Stephen Bull’s ‘Photography’).
  5. things that appear to be alive when they should not be and, conversely, things that seem to be dead when they should be alive and most photographs simultaneously bring to life things that have passed and cause what was living to be stilled
    Bull also describes how ‘… after the trauma of the First World War, eerily accurate body doubles of the dead were summoned up by medium-phtoographers and exposed in the darkness of their studios to create spirit photographs for those wishing to see their loved ones again’. This exploitation of grief for commercial ends is something the world is not all too familiar with.
  6. Rotation / Distortion
  7. The Ugly

Above Left:- Jacqueline Goddard Man Ray : 1930. In this image Man Ray solarised the image (black has become white), shadows glow, and gravity is defied. The result was achieved by taking a negative print, rotating it 90 degrees.

Above Right – Dora Maar – Portrait of Ubu. This image featuring an armadillo fetus immersed in formaldehyde doesn’t involve any unusual photographic processes or manipulation but the resulting image is unnerving and gives the viewer an uncomfortable feeling of not knowing what they are looking at.

8. Juxtaposition
‘A very common Surrealist technique is the juxtaposition of objects that would typically not be together in a certain situation or together at all. This has been described as “beautiful as the encounter of an umbrella and a sewing-machine on a dissecting table” (de la Croix 710). Juxtaposition can be used to show a metaphor or to convey a certain message.”’  (

Having viewed a number of images categorised as ‘Surrealist’,  I’ve decided to add some photographs which appeal to me, one of which is from a founder member of the Surrealist movement, Philippe Halsman, one from a contemporary professional Surrealist photographer, Lara Zankoul, and some other images found on the internet which have followed some of the same Surrealist principles.

salvador_dali_a_dali_atomicus_09633uPhilippe Halsman – Dali Atomicus, 1948

The playfulness of Halsman’s image really appeals to me. Here is an artist who thinks anything is possible when creating an image – its only his imagination which limits what you see in the frame. The hands of the prop man holding the chair to the left is a wonderful inclusion .. imagine his excitement at achieving creating this photograph that he neglects to ensure he remove the mechanical tools/people that are contributing to it. The overhead lighting creating the shadows on the floor was obviously designed to evidence that all the human/feline or inanimate objects were magically suspended in the air, but the shadows also give the photograph almost a menacing feel.

‘Frenemies ‘- Lara Zankoul
This photograph really resonated with me and seemed to perfectly describe the complexities of female friendships. The linked arms harks back to the simplicity of friendships in early school days and yet the threatening underwater scissors, hidden from viewers at the surface, unsettle the viewer… it is a physical or mental attack just about to happen. Will anyone find out the truth? The twin-like women, dressed alike, hark back to the idea of ‘doubles’ in Surrealist images.


Heather Buckley
Heather’s image to the right was used to advertise a street photography workshop she held in the US. I like the expression of the giant grumpy dog looking up into the sky. Has he just had enough of sight-seeing for one day? His owner holding the map seems oblivious… The church is also well placed between the two subjects completing the well thought composition.

My final two images were created by John Meehan. See his art photography at:- They are clever examples of contemporary street photography which echo the Surrealist ideas of a century ago.


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