Surrealist elements in colour documentary

Conduct research into surrealist elements in colour documentary

A modern definition of surreal

Having already looked at surrealism in relation to black and white photography I was unsure about the value of this exercise to research surrealist elements in colour documentary. In a modern context, surrealism has become synonymous with strange or unusual and seems to me to be an overused term – if the point of the exercise is to explore this then I struggled to see the benefit. The course notes point to themes of modernity, disenfranchisement and crisis of identity that “provides fertile ground for a new kind of surrealism that uses colour as its medium of expression.” The importance, and clear distinction in this exercise as opposed to the earlier project, which was concerned more with the development of surrealism as an art movement, is how this has developed in meaning and particularly how the use of colour photography changes the surrealist nature of the photograph. With this in mind, I decided to continue with the exercise to see where my thoughts took me and if my opinions changed.

David Fletcher makes a good response to this exercise on his blog and the OCA discuss site. David notes the importance of happenstance to the concept of surrealism, for example automatic writing and the use of found objects. This is an important point when considering photography, as everyday situations or objects is a common theme, especially in a genre such as street photography. David also argues against the observation in the course notes that humour is an essential quality of the surreal image – an assertion I agree with, there are many images I can think of that could be classed as surreal through their unsettling qualities rather than their use of humour. For David, absurdity is the essential element that makes a surreal image, and, while I understand the point he makes, I would also disagree with this – absurdity is one element that can make an image surreal, but it is not the essential ingredient to this definition.

Peter Haveland follows with a comment about the difference between surrealism as an art movement, and, the common usage of the word today to mean astonishing or over the top. However, he also believes that in an art context we need to be thinking about the movement, its ideology and how we can make those appropriate today. This comment chimes with my initial reaction to this exercise and my belief that surrealism has now become a term that is generalised and overused.

In another post for the same exercise initiated by Chris509847, Clive White questions the helpfulness of the description surrealism, which like the generic terms documentary and landscape, can become an unhelpful and misleading label. He argues the surrealism has potential as a dramatiser in the genre of documentary. The use of the term dramatiser really struck a chord with me and has helped me understand that how having a toolbox of strategies to employ to a given photographic project is an important aspect of development.

The initial conclusion I reach about surrealism as it relates to contemporary photography is that it is a complex and seemingly far reaching term, which, it is important not to either stifle through too close a definition or make meaningless by using too generally. A short brain storm led to the following list that can define what makes a surrealist photograph, photographs can have varying degrees or numbers of these: dreams (the influence of Freud, the conscious/unconscious mind); humour (also absurdity); juxtaposition; the unexpected/unusual (for example in the everyday); the uncanny; something disturbing/unsettling.

How does colour effect surreal images?

Colour in surrealist images is not what makes them surreal in nature – colour is what makes the images work on any level. Clive White on OCA discuss makes the point that the use of colour in surrealist photography is important as it avoids playing on the idea that “surrealism is something we are excavating from the past.”

What are the limits of surrealist elements on colour documentary?

The important part of this question is documentary, rather than surrealist. Conducting my research, there were a number of photographers I did not include because they more closely fit an art or constructed photography definition. This was not something I consciously thought about at the time but made me realise that despite the study I have conducted so far for this course, and my acceptance of how wide the possible definitions of documentary can be, I am still subconsciously aligned with the notion that documentary must be based in the real world in order to qualify as such.

Examples from the course notes:

The course notes offer examples of four photographers to consider as using surrealism in their work:

Cristóbal Hara: Vanitas

Cristóbal Hara’s work demonstrates the absurdity that is present in everyday life. He photographs traditional rural communities of Spain that are increasingly marginalised in the modern world. Many of the people he photographs could be described as peasants: they work the land and cling to the traditional formality and pageantry of religion while showing a lust for life and passion for the fiesta,

a life where “the demonic and demotic are never far apart.” (Howarth and McLaren, 2011: 77) For Hara, art forms other than photography are important influences on his practice, art styles such as expressionism and surrealism, avant-garde jazz which helps him create dissonance and unconventional structures, and literature which provides atmosphere, “I often try to look at things through the eyes of Don Quixote” he states.

The course notes cite two of Hara’s images as examples of his surrealist style: a photograph of a man sleeping next to a sheep

Hara - man sleeping next to sheep

And a photograph of a man in a motorised wheelchair pulling a young girl in a wheelchair behind him.

Hara - wheelchair and skateboard

Both are strong examples of the strange and amusing elements of everyday life. Other examples of his work however are more unsettling. For example, this image of an apparent car crash, a woman sitting besides the wreckage head in hands.

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We can only guess about what has led to this photograph being taken, the photograph appears to be taken in the daytime, and yet, the woman is dressed as if she was going for a night out. Her hair is unkempt which could either be as a result of being involved in the crash or because she has yet to return home after her night out-could this be the reason for the crash? Looking closer at the car, there is clearly something inside – is this someone trapped in the car? The image has an immediate, snapshot quality and is provided me with an unsettling jolt when viewed alongside Hara’s other images – which also suddenly seemed much less innocent.

It is unfortunate that Hara does not have a website as I would like to study his work further, I did find a video showing his photobook ‘Vanitas’ that is cited in the course notes, the work seems complex, strange and challenging. The narrative of each image is ambiguous and unsettling – all elements that fit my definition of surrealism well.

Peter Dench

See exercise 3-2 for some thought about the surrealist nature of Peter Dench’s photography.

Guy Tillim: Leopold and Mobutu

Tillim’s series Leopold and Mobutu’ is a documentation of the Congo which pays particular attention to post colonialism. Tim Hetherington (2005) in his review of ‘Leopold and Mobutu’ sates that Tillim’s lyrical voice moves his work beyond traditional photojournalism: “the burden of history is his subject, he does not attempt to overwhelm the viewer with profound statements or dry historical information. Rather, his broad brush strokes and open images allow the viewer space to think, as he deftly pulls the strands of his story together.”

Tillim - boy pissing

Both Hetherington and the course notes single out a photograph of a young boy urinating against a boat on top of which lies a felled statue. This unexpected, and seemingly impromptu moment, is a strong metaphor for the regard contemporary Congolese should hold their colonial past – the boat was used by King Leopold’s African International Association in the process of Empire building that resulted in 10 million dying during his reign. The statue is of the explorer Henry Stanley whose knowledge of the terrain Leopold used to stamp his mark on the place. Ultimately however, I am unsure how well this image fits the definition of surreal, the metaphorical reading of the image is from a western rereading, I doubt the boy in the picture is concerned with anything other than emptying his bladder rather than making a political point.

Carl de Keyzer: Zona

Carl de Keyzer‘s ‘Zona’ project is a documentation of Siberian prison camps which works against the viewers imagined ideas about life in the gulags – something which is enhanced by the use of colour. It is the imagined versus the actual which makes the project surreal, for example, this photograph of sculptures made out of snow and ice which is totally at odds with the idea of hard labour and misery.

A man throwing water over himself in the background adds a further unexpected and unusual aspect.

De Keyzer-Novobirusinsk, Siberia, Russia 2002

I imagine Siberia as a frozen wasteland, and yet there are many images in the series that show bright sunshine and warmth. In one picture the weather is apparently so warm that the prisoners beds have been moved outside, another shows a game of tennis – neither of these scenes are what we expect.

Some examples:

My approach for this was to think about work I am influenced by and think about how some of the images could be defined as surreal. My conclusion confirmed the feeling I had before starting this research that surrealism is a style that can be employed by a photographer, or a label that can be applied to a photograph. The photographers I looked at use surrealism to varying degrees and there were none that I thought could be defined as surrealist practitioners. I was struck

however by the different ways the work could be defined as surreal, varying from the use of humour, to a focus on the uncanny or the sinister. This could be driven through subject matter, stylistically or a combination of both. I also considered the question about whether these photographs could work in black and white – something I am unsure about the answer. Undoubtedly, all of these pictures would be different in black and white, but, most would still work I think – albeit they would have a different immediate effect on the viewer.

Richard Billingham: Ray’s a Laugh

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There are many images in Richard Billingham’s ‘Ray’s a Laugh’ that fit the definition of surreal. This image, however, is a perfect example and reminds me of the famous portrait of Dali by Phillipe Halsman. The main difference between the two images, apart from the use of colour and black and white, is that the Halsman photograph was constructed in the studio while Billingham’s picture is a candid moment captured. This is a great example of how a photograph can lack technical sophistication and still work – there is little in the image that is in focus, yet this gives the photograph a sense of immediacy, and the colours are garish yet add to our understanding of Ray and his living conditions. The photograph has frozen a moment that would have been over in an instant, Ray’s shocked pose contrasts with the cat as it apparently nonchalantly fly’s across the room. The eye contact between the cat and the viewer adds a humorous extra layer of detail.

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Likewise, this picture shares a similarity – Ray forever caught in mid fall. The viewer imagines a long period of inactivity – Ray sat in a drunken stupor – then, when he eventually decides to move, he finds his body will not allow him. Again, the technical imperfections add to this image in my view – the black area to the left of the frame which gives the impression we are looking around a corner and capturing the events that are occurring.

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This image is a great example of a photograph that would make no sense at all in black and white. The surreal element here are the garish, chaotic, colours of Liz’s dress echoed in the jigsaw puzzle on the table in front of her.

Maciej Dakowitz: Cardiff after dark

Between 2005-11, Maciej Dakowitz documented late night revellers in the St. Mary street area of Cardiff. Cardiff after dark’ shows how this area, which by day is filled with nondescript shoppers, commuters and office workers, and at night is transformed by alcohol.

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It is the expression on the man’s face that makes this image – the fact that he is wearing a dress, fishnets and a pink fluffy cowboy hat also add to the picture, but, it is his stare – seemingly the result of a heavy night of drinking that really effects. We cannot see the reasons why he feels the need to climb over the fence in the picture, but it seems this is a slightly futile effort and falling over the other side seems to be an inevitable result.

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These two images show the amorous end of the evening for the two couples shown. We are invited to be voyeurs with Dakowitz as he snatches these intimate moments. The serendipity of finding a phone box with the message “you won’t tell your mummy will you?” on it combined with the way the couple are framed through the glass of the phone box in the first image gives an ominous layer of seediness to the proceedings. We have no reason to believe there is anything illicit occurring, and yet, we cannot be certain this is the case – the ambiguity in the scene enables the viewer to arrive at a number of potential readings.

The second image humorously juxtaposes the glamorous advertising images behind the kissing couple with the reality of their encounter.

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Following the theme of romantic encounters, this image shows the bizarre encounter of a kissing couple and a man biting the hand of the girl being kissed. This could be over in an instant, the girl breaking off and challenging the man, but, because it is an instant captured as a photograph, the moment lasts forever.

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This image ends the book, and, after so much drunkenness, violence and general disruptive behaviour finishes the series on a positive note. There is a heroic quality emphasised by the way the scene is lit, with superman heading off into the distance and towards the light. This is more a live to fight another day scenario than a moment of victory.

Martin Parr: Luxury

Much of Martin Parr‘s practice shows the bizarre in the everyday and surrealism is frequently in evidence in his work. A number of images in his 2009 series ‘Luxury’, which documents the very richest people in the world, relies on humorous juxtaposition. For example, in these images of art fairs around the world, Parr concentrates attention on viewers who in some way resemble the artworks they are looking at.

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Gulf Art Fair, Dubai 2007
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Gulf Art Fair, Dubai 2007
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Gulf Art Fair, Dubai 2007
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Art Basel Miami Beach 2008

Chris Steele-Perkins

Chris Steele-Perkins colour work is a far cry from the early black and white projects he undertook in his early career, for example, as part of the Exit photography group. (see previous posts, ‘Socially committed B&W photographers’ and ‘Survival programmes.’

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Blackpool Beach, 1982

This photograph is so full of detail that it appears top encapsulate the idea of a family holiday to a British seaside resort in one image – children on donkey rides, paddling in the sea, windbreakers to be used as shelter from the elements, a father figure separate and seemingly unengaged with the activity around him and the dog, seemingly making a dirty protest against the naffness of it all. Although there are plenty of splashes of colour in the photograph, the overall palette is brown/grey – emphasised by the attire of the man in the foreground and particularly the socks which he has refused to take off. In the same way that black and white gives a photograph an identification of the past, the muted tones here seem to fit with memories of the bland and grey 1980s.

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Picnic at the Glyndebourne Opera, 1988

The obvious counterpoint to this image is Tony Ray Jones’ 1967 photograph of Glyndebourne. The most striking difference between the two, apart from the use of colour, is how much closer Steele-Perkins is to the picnicking Opera goers. The juxtaposition between the people dressed in the finest clothes sharing the field with a group of cows is the same in both images, but, not only are the people now sitting on the grass rather than using a table and chairs, but they seem so much closer to the cows – is this a demonstration of the closing gap between the classes or is the suggestion that standards are dropping?

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Prime minister Margaret Thatcher during the Conservative Party Conference in Blackpool, 1985

For politicians, image is everything and famously, Margaret Thatcher struggled to present herself in a natural way. Despite her best efforts to smile at the camera here, the harsh use of flash does little to flatter, something that is emphasise by the man on the left of the frame who is caught in a grimace confronted with the presence of the PM.

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Bloderndales perform at hen party in Essex, 1995

This is another image that seems humorously English with a budget version of the Chippendales performing for a hen party. The stage lights and slow shutter speed emphasise a sense of seediness which given the nature of the performers adds to the surreal nature of the picture.

Alec Soth: Sleeping by the Mississippi

Alec Soth‘s ‘Sleeping by the Mississippi’ project uses surrealism in a much more subtle way than the other examples shown here. His photographs concentrate on the unusual and rely on ambiguity – it is not clear what Soth’s position is in relation to the people and scenes he has photographed, and yet, these are clearly his subjective view rather than an objective representation of reality. The photographs gain substance when read together as a series with themes and recurring motifs reappearing but they also leave the viewer unsure about how to respond. My overriding feeling is that unlike other photographs I have shown here which have immediate surrealist connotations, these images gain in their surrealism the more they are viewed and considered.

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Bonnie (with a photograph of an Angel), Port Gibson, Mississippi

This image of a woman and the picture of a cloud that she believes to the representation of an angel is one of the most obviously surreal in ‘Sleeping by the Mississippi.’ The woman has an aura of self assured belief that is easy to dismiss and laugh at, but I do not get the sense that this is what Soth is doing. This is not a snatched, candid shot, like Martin Parr would take for example, but a posed portrait that clearly had the permission of the sitter – I doubt she would have agreed to sit for Soth if he was disparaging of her beliefs. Rather than being amused by the woman’s delusions, I find myself respecting the strength of her convictions – even though I do not share them. There also seems to be a visual connection between the shape of the woman’s hairstyle and that of the cloud that adds to the pictures surreal nature.

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Charles, Vasa, Minnesota

This is one of the most famous images in the series, and like the previous picture, one that could, but does not, suggest a mocking cruelty. We have no idea what the man in the picture is so proud of the aeroplane models he holds, or why the portrait is taken on a roof – especially one that seems to suggest that the house is rundown and ramshackle. Everything suggests that Charles is a strange, possibly solitary man, perhaps also of low I.Q. Yet, the passion for his hobby of building models and the suggestion that he dreams of flying is inspirational rather than pathetic.

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Hotel, Dallas City, Illinois

Here, a door stands removed from it’s frame against a wall that is painted the same colour for no apparent reason. The caption tells us that this image is taken in a hotel but the lack of any further detail means we can only speculate as to why the door is in this state – the sketch at the top right hand panel does give a little idea that this is the result of disrepair or even vandalism.

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Sugar’s davenport, Iowa

This image reminds me of William Eggleston’s the red ceiling/Greenwood Mississippi, 1973 in that they are both photographs of apparently very little, punctuated by a small detail that entirely changes our reading. In Eggleston’s case it is a poster of the karma sutra that leads our reading of the place as a seedy and deviant area. In Soth’s image it is a copy of Hustler that makes us reassess the seemingly banal view of a room that appears both conventional and old fashioned. The suggestion here is that we should not take everything at face value as often there is a great deal going on beneath the surface.


Chris509847 et al (2018) Documentary Surrealism Exercise. OCA Discuss. Available at: [accessed 27th January 2018]

Billingham, R. (2014) Ray’s a Laugh. New York: Errata Editions.

Dakowicz, M. (2012) Cardiff after dark. London: Thames and Hudson

Fletcher, D. (2018) Exercise – surrealism and colour photography. Learning blog for Photography 2: Documentary. Available at: [accessed 27th January 2018]

Fletcher D. et al (2018) Exercise for Photography 2: Documentary – Images in a surrealist style – request for comments. OCA Discuss. Available at: [accessed 27th January 2018]

Hetherington, T. (2005) Leopold and Mobutu by Guy Tillim. Foto8, Vol. 3 No. 4. Available at: [accessed 26th January 2018]

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

Parr, M. (2009) Luxury. London: Chris Boot

Soth, A. (2017) Sleeping by the Mississippi. Mack.

Steele-Perkins, C. (2009) England, my England. Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Northumbria Press.

3 thoughts on “Surrealist elements in colour documentary

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