Whether it’s done inside a darkroom or in the virtual space of Photoshop, surreal photography aims to transmit a world beyond real, to visualize someone’s unusual and bizarre thoughts in the most accurate way possible. From the earliest days of surrealism photography in the 1920s to the very latest photos by today’s most talented photographers, we have witnessed a true evolution of photography as the medium, within the sensibility of surrealism as one of leading art movements out there. Through stunning technical skills and a fairly wild imagination, these artists have presented us with a photo (sur)reality without logic and reason, the one that surprises and scares us, all the while luring us in with its remarkable composition and incredible, and above all impossible topics.
May Ray and Lee Miller. Two remarkable artists, one way more famous than the other. Bringing together unique and rarely seen photographs, paintings, sculpture and drawings, this exquisite book tells the story of the tumultuous relationship between the two. From 1929 to 1932, the two lived together in Paris, first as teacher and student, and later as lovers. Historically, Miller has been described as Man Ray’s muse, but Partners in Surrealism reveals how their brief, mercurial love affair was a key source of mutual and sustained inspiration, resulting in some of the most powerful work of each artist’s career. Featuring a candid and poignant contribution from Antony Penrose, the son of Miller and the English painter Roland Penrose, on the relationship between Man Ray and his parents in later years, this is an extraordinary exploration of the love, lust and desire that drove the art of the Surrealists.
We shall start with probably the most important figure in early surreal photography - Man Ray. One of his most famous works is this black and white photo, which features his painting Observatory Time and a nude female on the sofa. It appears as though this woman is dreaming about the picture, and the lips that belong to Man Ray’s departed lover, Lee Miller. The image is a perfect example of surrealism in photography, as it conveys typical darkroom manipulation, in this case mainly in form of montage, as well as the idea of depicting a dreamy environment.
Slightly obsessed with dolls, German artist Hans Bellmer made sure they looked even more eerie by taking such photographs of them. The Doll from around 1936 is a hand-colored black and white surreal photo of one of his life-size deformed dolls made of wood, plaster, metal rods, nuts and bolts. Following another aspect of surrealism, that being the erotica and the subversive of the female body, the artist created many photographs of his sculptures, in many poses and stages of construction, always quite controversial in topic yet theatrical in representation, at times.
What better way to evoke surrealism than to capture one of its greatest master in a photo? That’s what Philippe Halsman did by photographing Salvador Dali in 1948. The image seems a work of Dali himself, and it is indeed inspired by one of his paintings, Leda Atomica, which could be seen in the photo, right behind the three flying cats. It took Halsman 28 attempts before he reached the final imagery, and in a behind-the-scenes picture, we can spot hanging wires and even people holding objects in order to make everything look suspended in the air.
Moving on to contemporary talents who are all about surreal photos, we have Lara Zankoul, a Lebanese conceptual photographer whose favourite thing is to visualize modern-day fairy tales. Her pictures often explore the mysteries of the human psyche, combining unusual elements with quotidian life. Her 2013 The Unseen series features contemporary scenarios literally immersed in pools of water that occupy their living space, creating playful narratives. She doesn’t use any kind of digital manipulation, thus all these artworks are done strictly through the sole use of camera.
An apparent admirer of one Rene Magritte, Swedish photographer Tommy Ingberg creates minimalistic and reflecting surreal photos dealing with human nature, feelings and thoughts. His monochromatic works are inspired by the idea of expressing the abstract, and as part of his Reality Rearranged series, he managed to depict the views of the world he lives in, while incorporating recognizable surrealist symbolism like hats, birds, shadows and sky. The male figure appearing in almost all his works is probably the artist himself, in a kind of a self-portrait.
A fine art photographer from Connecticut, but not just, Kevin Corrado is working with both film and digital to create rather lyrical compositions of surrealism. His education in graphic design allows him to work with sensitive precision, using a soothing color palette to present a dream-like world and self-consciousness. At the age of only 24, this young artist is already producing remarkable bodies of work, much of which depicts the struggles of his generation to belong, participate, deal and interact with and within the modern-day society it lives in.
Daring and entertaining above all, the surreal photos of Dimitri Daniloff are a hybrid of glossy advertising photography and the fantasy products of a rich mind. Dealing with an entire myriad of contemporary topics, such as identity, sexuality, fashion, nature, marketing and just the irony of the world we live in, these images, among which it was really hard to pick only one for this article, call out some of today’s serious issues in a playful, yet direct manner. Perfectly executed, they remind us of the refined works of Erwin Olaf, only with that one small difference - the element of surprise.
Because one of things surrealism often does best is surprise and shock with improbable cause, without necessarily being too outside the boundaries of a realistic representation, we have photographs of smoking children, which a couple of years ago caused a lot of controversy. Their author, Flemish photographer Frieke Janssen, was as surprised as we are to learn that something like smoking could still shock people. Surreal, right? Her photos see children dressed in vintage clothes and holding cigarettes (actually, they were added in post-production, don’t worry) and apart from being of great quality, their aim is to provoke thought, which they successfully did.
For those of you who are currently using the latest version of Photoshop, photographer Alberto Seveso seems familiar. That is because one of his images is being used for the program’s welcoming screen, due to this artist’s remarkable skills. He starts with a photograph, but ends up with more of a illustration work, often composed of liquid forms that sum up to create a greater narrative. For ESPN magazine, one of his many graphic endeavours, he re-invented an image of swimmer Michael Phelps, making his body decompose into various design elements.
Finally, as the star of surreal photos everyone is talking about, we have Berlin-based Erik Johansson, whose truly mind-bending images make us question our entire existence for a brief moment. He likes to play with perspective, puns and imagination, and his artistry involves actual making of objects he is photographing and as little use of software as possible. His photographs make us wish his dreamy scenarios were true, because they’re just so much fun! We really look forward to his next creations, as this guy’s mind seems to be inexhaustible of ideas.
All images used for illustrative purposes only.
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The current exhibition at Alison Jacques Gallery is focused on two seminal photographic series made by Gordon Parks during his time at Life magazine.