How Surrealist Art Has Impacted Photography

surrealist art
Image by Ken

Surrealist Art And It's Impact On The World Of Photography

1924, the year Andre Breton wrote his first Manifesto of Surrealism, could be considered somewhat an ‘official’ start to the Surrealist movement if there could ever be an analytical approach to such an ambiguous and lucid movement.

A movement which even now has its flame still burning, the likes of Dali, Duchamp, Breton, Ray, Magritte and Picasso all played pivotal roles in its succession and legacy. However, within the surrealist art genre, one medium really came to fruition and was explored in ways it had never been before…Photography.

Surrealist Art was a tour-de-force of madness, pushing a movement away from reason and calculation, such ideas were seen to hinder creativity, to block the pure channel of the unconscious.

Unrestrained, provocative and satirical, a concentration on dreams, madness, and sexuality, Surrealism was entirely its own as an art movement with photography playing a pivotal role in its success, alongside the provocative use of photography as a medium.

The Surrealists used techniques we now very much take for granted. Double exposure to evoke the feeling of a dream like state. Within the photographs of Man Ray, Rene Magritte using photography as a means to create photographic versions of his paintings and Hans Bellmer meticulously photographing his doll-type structures to evoke borderline Lynchian imagery.

surrealist art
Salvador Dali

Surrealists used photography within their art and channeled – almost, distilled it – through their unique artistic lens, even the most simple subject matter could become something else via its placement within a Surrealist Art journal, or within an exhibition.

Years later, Warhol would be taking Polaroids that were meant to be viewed and interpreted as more than what was merely on the paper. The Surrealists were doing this in the 20’s, however, they weren’t commenting on culture, they were commenting on the unconscious, on human nature, on what might be beneath all this.

At its heart was an expressive, somewhat DIY aesthetic. photograms made entirely from exposing photographic paper to light with objects sat atop of it.

Double exposures, solarization, combination printing and montages were all part of the Surrealist arsenal, creating an ethereal feeling for the viewer.

In a way, the Surrealist photographic method could arguably be called “pre-photoshop”. What we now take for granted with extremely advanced technology and software, that, even though is complex is accessible to even the most amateur computer user, was in the 20’s a rigorous/inventive undertaking.

Thus what the Surrealists were doing/attempting in terms of photographic technology was revolutionary. There are of course contemporary Surrealist photographers and artists, however, to view and retrospect on the ingenuity and free-floating imaginations of these creatives is a task in itself.

Within Surrealist photography, lies a catch-22 and in my opinion a humorous one at that. The Surrealists were attempting, via their art, to liberate the modern mind and attempt to understand deep-set, unconscious desires, fears and impulses.

Yet they were doing this with the most realistic medium of the time, photography. Thus, the viewer is given art that at its physical base is ‘realistic’ yet via artistry, manipulation and imagination the work is turned Surreal, a confusion of reality.

surrealist art
Image by Ken (NatureWorks)

What Surrealists Were Doing With Photography

So, what the Surrealists did was to transform the medium of photography – which, at the time was used entirely to represent the ‘real’ and was entirely modern – into something completely different, assigning photography a different context within the art-world, a new meaning…a new context even.

Now, photography could be something of its own, the process of photography as a means towards expression, instead of simply focusing on capturing the real as it was seen in day-to-day life.

The idea that photography could be art was only just coming to fruition and the Surrealists truly opened up the idea that photography was in and of itself an artistic medium to be taken seriously, within the realms of painting and sculpture.

When presented with a Surrealist photograph, one is presented with conflicting imagery, two opposing forces/worlds competing for existence on the canvas/print.

The world of the real and the world of dreams and unconscious together in an often hostile bind. No longer did Surrealists wish to simply mimic nature, they wanted to go through it, go further than nature, venture into a deep unknown and present their findings via art and writing.

The nature of photography is to represent the real and the Surrealists de-constructed this representation into something lucid, dream-like and well…Sur-real.

Before going a little further, pro photographer and author Kent DuFault illustrates how to combat boredom and repetition in your photography (your photographic auto pilot) and instead feeling motivated and inspired to be uber-creative! Learn more about his book, “The Creativity Catalog” brought to you by Photzy.

So, what does this mean for contemporary photography practice?

Well, one has to try to imagine a world or history in which the Surrealists didn’t make the leaps they did. Would we, as a collective still view photography as purely a vessel for realism?

  • Would the idea that photography be wholly its own without other artistic attachments seem ridiculous to us?
  • And would the practice of photography become an analytical pursuit?

These questions, are in some ways unanswerable, however, when faced with them, one can clearly seem the strides the Surrealists made in terms of what a photograph can be, or even what it can do.

Surrealist Art was rubbing off on the whole genre of photography as we knew it.
surrealist art
Image of the HR Giger Museum by thechewy


With software such as Photoshop at the majority of photographers finger tips, one wonders where Surrealist, or generally surreal photography will head next?

We now have the ability to distort, manipulate and obscure more powerfully than ever, with our knowledge of photographic techniques becoming more and more advanced and photography as a whole being taken seriously as an art form and profession…perhaps there needs to be a re-emergence of Surreal photography.

The idea, context and meaning of photography to be questioned once more...

Pro photographer and author Kent DuFault illustrates how to combat boredom and repetition in your photography and instead feel motivated and inspired! Learn more about his book, “The Creativity Catalog” brought to you by Photzy.

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