B&W and Surrealism

Read the article ‘Cannon Fodder: Authoring Eugène Atget’ by Abigail Solomon-Godeau.

Research the work of surrealist photographers (e.g. Eugène Atget, Graciela Iturbide, Henri Cartier-Bresson, André Kértész, George Brassaï, Man Ray, Tony Ray-Jones and Paolo Pellegrin.) Make a bullet list of key visual and conceptual characteristics that the work has in common.

Notes on Surrealism:

Surrealism is held as one of the major artistic movements of the 20th century which, although changed from its initial aims and intent, still carries influence today. Franklin (2016: 151) states, that Surrealism was “an artistic revolution that came of age in the 1920s…a tour de force because it challenged us to see the world differently, with a certain poetic lightness that, artistically, punched above its weight.” The key influential period of surrealism dates from the end of World War I to the death of André Breton, the founder and unofficial ‘Pope of Surrealism’, in 1966. The roots of Surrealism are in literature and poetry, however, it is best known for its striking visuals. Although coined in 1917, the meaning of Surrealism was defined by Breton in 1924 with the first Surrealist manifesto: “a pure psychical automatism designed to express the real workings of thought in the absence of controls exercised by reason, and as pure non-conformism.” (Macey, 2000: 372) Surrealism was a revolt against all forms of realism, and even rationality, unconstrained by moral, ethical or aesthetic considerations. Influenced by Freud (particular ‘The psychopathology of everyday life’ (1914), psychoanalysis and dream analysis) the aim of surrealist practice was to unleash unconscious creative forces and dissolve the dividing line between art and life. Freud’s therapeutic technique for free association was adapted by the surrealists for two signature artistic procedures: automatic writing – a stream of consciousness flow of words written without regard for syntax or sense; collage – random combinations of images and materials.

Wells (2009: 252) cautions about the oversimplification of Surrealism’s aims regarding these as complex and changing overtime. For example, challenging the very nature of art could be seen as central but is often overlooked. The fact that there was not a clear visual coherence to surrealist art also leads to difficulties in categorisation. Today, surrealism is an overused term that has almost become a clichéd response to anything that is strange or unexpected.

Photography and surrealism:

Photography’s ability to tread a line between reality and unreality is perhaps an explanation of why the medium was so central to the Surrealist’s practice. Taking photographs was seen as the visual equivalent of free association and a method of side stepping the rational mind. Their interest in art driven by the power of dreams and spontaneous happenstance led to photographic experiments with both straight photography and image manipulation and montage. Strategies varied from pointing the camera haphazardly at whatever was in front of the lens to more considered experiments in the studio, some of which did not involve a camera in the traditional sense such as Man Ray’s photograms (Rayograms). The surrealist interest in psychology also fits with photography’s ability capture scenarios that suggest something has happened or is about to happen.

For Salvador Dali, the mechanical nature of the camera was liberating: “photography sets the imagination free.” (Wells, 2009: 202) and “nothing proves the truth of surrealism so much as photography.” (Franklin, 2016: 151) Breton stated: “The invention of photography dealt a mortal blow to the old modes of expression in painting as well as in poetry, where automatic writing, which appeared at the end of the nineteenth century is a true photography of thought.” (Wells, 2009: 203)

Visual and conceptual characteristics of surrealist photography:

  • ‘Revolt against realism.’
  •  Unleash the unconscious – influence of Freud – psychoanalysis/dream analysis.
  •  Eroticism – voyeuristic, sadistic males gaze; forbidden sexuality, female body as symbol.
  • Myth/primitive art.
  • Chance.
  • Dream like atmospheres – Franklin (2016: 151) states: Surrealism “grazed on the dialectical tension between dream and reality, between what is actually there and what is imagined.”
  • Political/revolutionary – challenge to bourgeois attitudes.
  • Interior/exterior.
  • Mirrors and reflections – mirrors frequently feature, referencing reflection and the self as a source of angst, trauma and artistic creativity.
  • The Flâneur – notion of the flâneur an influence on surrealism, particularly photography where the street became the focus for serendipitous encounters.
  • The manipulated, constructed image.
  • The distorted image.
  • Juxtaposition.
  • Something unexpected/out of place.
  • Unusual perspectives.

Surrealist photographers:

Eugène Atget (1857-1927)

Roamed Paris streets producing 10 000 prints for which he made no artistic claims referring to them as ‘documents for artists’. His clear, objective style resisted the fashionable pictorialist influences of the time. For the Parisian avant-garde, Atget’s documents were unsettling and evocative and showed the instinctive Surrealist properties. The sense of the mysterious present in his images taps into the inherent Surrealism of photography as a medium. Walter Benjamin described Atget’s photographs as scenes where crimes had been committed and talked of their ‘infernal emptiness’. (Badger, 2001: 55) Bernice Abbott, at the time an assistant to Man Ray, championed Atget and bought a large amount of his archive on his death. The subsequent canonisation and

assertion of authorial intent that was posthumously placed on Atget and his work is detailed by Solomon-Godeau (2009) in ‘Cannon Fodder: Authoring Eugène Atget’. The qualities of Atget’s work that attracted to them to the Surrealists for Solomon-Godeau was the way he photographed quirky objects in an unmediated, transparent realism with a style that provokes a ‘shock of the familiar’. The defamiliarising quality of the pictures are a revelation of the mysterious in the ordinary.

Au Tambour’ (1908)

An example of the use of unlikely reflections in Atget’s photography.

Man Ray (1890-1976)

Commented that he painted that which could not be photographed and photographed that which could not be painted. (Wells, 2009: 287)

Rayograph’ (1922)

A version of a photogram that attempted to create an element of strangeness in common objects, deeply enigmatic, they suggest fragments of dreams due to the refusal to reference the everyday world.

Le Violon d’Ingres’ (1925)

An attack on the traditional values of the academy and on Ingres himself who was a keen violin player.

‘Glass Tears’ (1930)

A visual pun and unexpected juxtaposition of disparate elements.

‘Untitled’, from Minotaur (1933-5)

Ominous shadows above female torso suggest minotaur from Greek myth.

Electricity’ (1931)

“one of the great monuments of surreal photography.” (Badger, 2001: 63)

A collaboration with the Paris Electricity Supply company that is also one of the most successful examples of the union between commerce and the artistic avant-garde. The series features 10 images, primarily photograms (Rayograms) combining solarized images and collaged elements ranging from the domestic to the industrial. The most famous features assistant and muse Lee Miller, severely cropped Miller’s naked torso becomes an anonymous object and suggests the eternal feminine as well as the new, modern energy system: “The Greek goddess segues into the domestic goddess.” (Badger, 2001: 65)

André Kértész (1894-1985)

Distortion series

Short lived series and surrealist experiment

Meudon’ (1928)

An example of Kértész’s interest in the magic of coincidence, joy in seizing the fleeting, yet resonant moment as well as the mysterious present in everyday life which was a concern throughout his career.

Brassaï (1899-1984)

‘Paris de Nuit’ (Paris by Night) (1933)

Series that features characters who exist in the twilight of respectable society – outsiders such as vagrants and prostitutes, representations of freedom and non-conformity. Formed by the notion that the extraordinary always prowls close to the ordinary. ‘Paris de Nuit’ carried no social message, instead showed the people of the night as ‘Bijou’ (jewel) who relished the extremes of life.

‘Bijou of Montmartre’ (1932)

Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004)

As a student of art history Cartier-Bresson was more interested in Surrealist theories of the irrational than specific art practices of the movement. His notion of the decisive moment is an articulation of his thoughts on instantaneous composition. He wrote: “I owe an allegiance to Surrealism because it taught me to let the photographic lens look into the rubble of the conscious and of chance.” (Franklin, 2016: 156)

‘Behind the Gare St. Lazare’ (1932)

Hans Bellmer (1902-75)

‘La Poupée’ (1935)

A series of increasingly bizarre scenarios where dolls/puppets represent Bellmer’s sexual fantasies – in the more extreme images suggesting a sadistic fetishism. The underlying violence in the images is cast within terms of power, force and male desire.

Raoul Ubac (1910-1905)

‘La Conciliabule’ (1938)

Brûlage technique (film emulsion melted to produce swirling shapes) used to depict slippery looking dissolving forms signifying the transitory quality of human identity.

Dora Maar (1909-97)

Experimental photographer with a knack for contriving unsettling images.

‘Père Ubu’ (1936)

Claude Cahun (1894-1954)

Series of self portraits exploring shifting, subjective moments and gender identity

‘Self Portrait’ (1928)

Manuel Alvarez Bravo (1902-2002)

Mexico’s most influential 20th century photographer. Although he stated that surrealism was only a minimal influence on his work, many of his compositions recall the eerie and mysterious visual spectacle favoured by Surrealism. Notably, his work was shown in an exhibition organised by Breton.

Bravo stated the following about the influence of Atget on his work: “Atget I believe, wound up shaping my thinking: well not so much, but my way of looking, he made me gaze differently…there was a defined path for my work.” (Franklin, 2016: 153)

‘La Buena Fama Durmiendo’ (Good reputation sleeping) (1938-9)

A seductive and sexually charged nude portrait that intimates Surrealism’s concern with eroticism and altered states of consciousness.

Lee Miller (1907-1977)

‘Portrait of space, near Sirra, Egypt, 1937’

Example of surrealist juxtaposition of interior/exterior to achieve a dreamlike effect.

Graciela Iturbide (b. 1942)

Iturbide was a student of Bravo and his interest in surrealism shows in her work. The ‘Juchitán’ series possesses shows how the strange is present in the real world with many themes of surrealism being present in the images – a documentation of the Oaxaca area of Mexico shows a matriarchal society where diverse sexualities are accepted and encouraged.

‘Nuestra Señora de las Iguanas/Our Lady of the Iguanas’

Juchitán’ series (c. 1980s)


Badger, G. (2001) The genius of photography: How photography has changed our lives. London: Quadrille Publishing.

Bate, D. (2016) Photography: The Key Concepts. (2nd Ed.) London: Bloomsbury.

Buchanan, I (2010) Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory. New York: Oxford University Press inc.

Foster, H. et al. (2012) Art since 1900: Modernism * Antimodernism * Postmodernism. (2nd ed.) London: Thames & Hudson.

Franklin, S. (2016) The Documentary Impulse. London: Phaidon

Herschdorfer, N. (2015) The Thames & Hudson dictionary of photography. London: Thames & Hudson.

Howarth, S. (2011) Street Photography Now. London: Thames & Hudson.

Macey, D. (2000) The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory London: Penguin books

Solomon-Godeau, A. Cannon Fodder: Authoring Eugène Atget. In:

pps. 28-51 Solomon-Godeau, A. (2009) Photography at the dock. Minneapolis, Minn: Univ. of Minnesota Press.

Warner Marien, M. (2012) 100 ideas that changed photography. London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd.

Warner Marien, M. (2014) Photography: A Cultural History (4th ed) London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd.

Wells, L. (2009) Photography: A Critical Introduction (4th ed). Abingdon: Routledge.

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