Friday, April 25, 2008

Surrealism and photography

It may at first seem odd that Surrealism, with its emphasis on the poetry of the unconscious, should have had any interest in the all too physical processes of photography. But the Surrealists were not interested in escaping from reality; rather they sought a deeper, more heightened form of it. If photography could be turned away from the mere depiction of surfaces, its apparent objectivity could be powerfully put to Surrealist ends, producing evidence of this ‘sur-reality’.

In fact, photography was found everywhere in Surrealist publications. Magazines such as La Révolution surréaliste (1924-9), Documents (1929-30), and Le Minotaure (1933-9) featured anonymous photographs, often with their meaning crucially changed in this new context, alongside images made by photographers such as Man Ray, Jacques-André Boiffard, and Brassaï. The leader of the Surrealist group, André Breton, used photographs by Boiffard and Brassaï to illustrate the places visited in his two books Nadja (1928) and L'Amour fou (1937).

Several Surrealist books juxtaposed poetry and photography. In Facile (1935), Paul Éluard's poems for his wife Nusch were interwoven with Man Ray's photographs of her nude body. Roland Penrose's The Road is Wider than Long (1938) was the product of a journey through the Balkans with Lee Miller, and brought together his photographs and poetry in a shifting page layout. On the Needles of These Days, published in Prague in 1942, juxtaposed photographs of found objects by Jindrich Styrsky (1899-1942) with unrelated fragments of text by Jindrich Heisler.

Surrealist photography itself took several forms. There was a great use of techniques of manipulation. Many artists used photomontage—the early work of Max Ernst stands out here—but equally it was pursued by Surrealist writers such as Breton and Éluard. The foremost inventor of Surrealist photography was Man Ray—born in America but living in Paris from 1921. He developed a poetic form of the photogram, which he called the ‘Rayograph’. Later, he explored the technique of solarization with great delicacy, especially in his portraits and nudes. In the 1930s, the Belgian Raoul Ubac mixed solarization with photomontage to make more multi-layered, ‘convulsive’ images.

Staged photography was also important for a number of Surrealist artists, often prefiguring its role in later art practice. On one level, this took the form of highly sophisticated snapshots, like the witty, ironic images made by René Magritte and the rest of the Belgian group. More serious and indeed controversial are the photographs that Hans Bellmer took of his ‘Poupée’—the female doll he made in the 1930s. Variously seen as liberatory or misogynistic, the images of the doll twisted this way and that remain deeply disturbing. Recently, the work of two lesser-known figures, Pierre Molinier (1900-76) and Claude Cahun, has been much discussed for the way they crossed gender boundaries, Molinier dressing in corset and black stockings while Cahun often rendered herself neuter, almost alien.

Finally, and in quite different ways, the conventions of documentary photography were exploited by Surrealism for its own ends. Among the images used anonymously in La Révolution surréaliste were four photographs by Eugène Atget, made for quite different ends but ‘discovered’ as examples of unconscious Surrealism by Atget's neighbour, Man Ray. Very soon, though, the Surrealists came more broadly to view Atget's deserted cityscapes as images of a haunted urban environment pregnant with possibilities. Brassaï's later photographs of Paris by night can be seen as a nocturnal parallel to Atget's work; he was one of a generation of photographers in Paris in the early 1930s who were influenced by Surrealism. Using the new 35mm camera, André Kertész and the young Henri Cartier-Bresson pictured a city full of coincidences and connections, caught in a fraction of a second before they disperse.

The influences of Surrealism within photography have been far reaching. Simply in this latter area of ‘surrealist documentary’, one would have to go on to consider the work of Bill Brandt and Lee Miller in Britain, Vilém Reichmann (1908-91) and Emila Medková in Czechoslovakia, Manuel Álvarez Bravo in Mexico, Frederick Sommer in the Arizona desert, and Clarence John Laughlin in New Orleans. All these photographers were interested in how the camera can simultaneously record everyday reality and probe beneath its surface to reveal new possibilities of meaning.

— Ian Walker


Krauss, R., and Livingston, J. (eds.), L'Amour fou: Photography and Surrealism (1985).
Walker, I., City Gorged with Dreams: Surrealism and Documentary Photography in Interwar Paris (2002).
Bate, D., Photography and Surrealism: Sexuality, Colonialism and Social Dissent (2003)

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