History of Surrealism
Surrealism is not a specific photographic art movement; instead, it was a “revolutionary” art movie coming out of the early part of the century. Developing out of Dada and eventually evolving into the overtly Marxist Situationist movement, surrealism intended to utilize contradictory imagery and “unreal” aesthetics to utilize elements of radical politics, psychology, playfulness and a general attempt at challenging standard expressions. The principles that are then ported over to photography cannot, and should not, be a firm representation of the work that was produced in that period, but instead taking the spirit of it and attempting to move forward and create images using photographic technology that will bring about the purpose of the movement.
One of the main principles of surrealism is to try to create illogical connections within an image, matching different types of objects and themes in a
way that breaks them from their cultural modalities. This is a feat that is made much easier in things like painting where the artist determines exactly what is on the canvas, but in surreal photography this can often be achieved as part of developing a constructed image. In this way it is less part of the technical photographic form and much more about what is presented in front of the camera.
To do this effectively you have to stem your work out of a concept, both ideological and visual. This means juxtaposing different elements that may not be there naturally and trying to create an image that breaks the principles of reality, moving into dream logic and imagination. You have to then consider how you intend to actually create the imagery in the real world, and it may be easier to do this through compositing and photo editing in a way that will then allowing you to meet your vision. Since the combination between two contradictory images is central to surreal imagery, combining them through software may be the easiest answer to your artistic issue.
Since photography is usually considered to be an interpretation of reality, you do not always have to break that relationship with the viewer and can instead integrate elements of the surreal experience into a realistic photo. This can be done by breaking the expectations for how a location, or object, would be represented in regular sight. You can hyper expose the image, under expose the image, increase contrast to a normally objectionable point, or even alter the relationships between the colors. All of these are fairly easily achievable principles used either in the production of images or through photo editing, but change the balance of sight that is common.
If you want to begin utilizing this representation when in your photo production you should begin in much the same way as you would with abstract photography and use your camera less as a normal tool for image capture and more as a simple image creation device. Go in with a relatively well conceived perspective and begin shooting your real world location without focusing on creating accurate representation. Try lowering your shutter speed well below 1/60 to invite in motion blur and purposely take your aperture out of fine focus. If you have light control you may want to begin working on backlighting or very sharp lighting formats, hyper realizing the key light and losing the fill light altogether. This will create silhouettes, sharp contrast, and a very dramatic sensibility.
If you are working in a photo editing program, you have even more that you can do as making dramatic changes to your photos will only take a few moves. A good example of this can be to desaturate the image, raise the contrast, and blow out certain areas. What this will do is resemble crime photography, which takes the original photo out of its context and then allows the viewer to correlate it with the cultural institution of the crime photographer. This will initiate the image as surreal photography because the juxtaposition will be in place, though it will be between the image and the style.
Simple Image Changes
If you want to take a more simple approach to surreal photography you can try to simply re-imagine an object, scenario or existing source
image. This does not mean that you have to stem directly from an intellectual concept and work backwards - just try to take an unconventional image and work from a purely aesthetic point of view. To work on this you need to come straight from the image and see if you can start simple, giving the object or situation a small difference right from the camera.
The best way to do this is by breaking the basic principles of perspective and composition, which immediately gives the viewer a sense of uneasiness or a lack of a stock response to the imagery. You can begin this immediately by positioning the subject dramatically to one side of the frame, cutting away any nose room, or even cutting off an important part of their face such as the eyes or mouth.
Color is an important place to play with expectation so inversing them or changing the accepted colors can do great deal for altering the image. The sky, for example, has such as definite color in relation to the land that if this is altered it will immediately indicate that the image is not reflecting the unaltered world.
Examples of Surreal Photos
Article written based on author’s own experience.