Surrealist Photography

Surrealist photography, like surrealism in general, is a rather nebulous term and like all successful art movements is open to interpretation. Developed initially out of the ideas of Sigmund Freud, it began as an attempt to depict ‘dream states’; images that either did not belong, or were very much out of place, in the real world. Although some photographers, such as Man Ray, became dedicated exponents of surrealist techniques, others were influenced by the idea in their own way.

Identifying aspects of surrealist photography include

– Dream-like: An image that is more reminiscent of a dream than the real world
– Unusual juxtaposition: Objects, people, places seen out of context. The intended effect is to jolt the viewer’s attention and drive them towards a different interpretation
– Experimental printing: Negative photographs and unusual printing processes such as solarization to evoke a sense of ‘other wordliness’
– Playfulness: Much successful surrealist work includes an element of humour. Although some work from the surrealist movement could be disturbing, an element of fun is less shocking and more engaging to the intended audience
– A moment in time: Careful (or sometimes accidental) choice of the shutter instant to evoke the idea of something about to happen, or a single instant from a larger narrative

If the success of a photograph is a joint effort between the artist’s intentions and the viewer’s response, surrealism perhaps places more onus on the viewer to supply the interpretation than is generally present in photography. The intended effect is to invoke a psychological reaction in the viewer, so that any interpretation is dependent on their own dreams and fears.

Man Ray’s work image used for the Surrealist magazine ‘Minotaure’ is a good example of dream-like playfulness.
(Viewed at
Recognising the reference to a minotaur is obvious to all but the similarity invokes an unconscious link. What does it make the viewer think about as a result?

André Kertész’s’ photograph ‘Meudon 1928’ again has a dream-like quality to it, as well as employing an unusual juxtaposition.
Kertesz - Meudon
(Viewed at
There is too much going on here to be viewed in a rational way. The man walking towards the camera, the figures in the background walking away, and especially the train passing overhead, all work together to give the image an unreal atmosphere.

Kertész also used optic distortion for unreal effects
Kertesz - Distortion #40
(View at
The foreground distortion is unsettling, and the deliberate positioning of her hands is suggestive of gender fluidity. Since this is not a real world view we would be able to see with our own eyes, the image invites the viewer to apply a personal interpretation.

Brassai’s photograph “Tour Saint-Jacques seen from Notre Dame” is an example of a photographer using surrealist influences in their work.
Brassai - Tour Saint-Jacques
(View at
By focussing specifically on the statue in the foreground, Brassai gives the view of Paris a slight air of menace. The statue is obviously a statue but seeing at night like this makes us more fearful but still in a slightly comedic way.

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