Research point: B&W and surrealism

We’re asked to read the essay ‘Canon Fodder: Authoring Eugène Atget’ by Abigail Solomon-Godeau, and to review the work of some suggested surrealist photographers (Graciela Iturbide, Henri Cartier-Bresson, André Kertész, George Brassaï, Man Ray, Eugène Atget, Paolo Pellegrin, Tony Ray-Jones), then write a bullet list of key visual and conceptual characteristics that their work has in common.

Finally understanding surrealism

First, a little reflection. I wrote a draft of about half of this post then deleted it as I had a sudden epiphany about surrealism.

My understanding of ‘surrealism’ for the last few decades has been rooted in the visual style of certain notable surrealist artists (notably Salvador Dali and René Magritte). I associated ‘surreal’ with weird, abstract, unreal – melting clocks and floating apples. Most of all I associated it with painting.

My limited understanding of surrealism until now

My limited understanding of surrealist photography was that it co-opted similarly unreal imagery in a highly constructed way (Man Ray, Moholy-Nagy, Philippe Halsman etc). My misunderstanding was that surrealism is a self-consciously ‘unreal’ visual style. I struggled to associate it with documentary photography.

In this context I first thought that in the photographers suggested by the course notes, the bar for ‘surrealism’ had been set strangely low. Most of the images I surveyed would struggle to be meet my definition of surrealism.

The lightbulb moment came when I revisited – and finally understood – some key definitions of surrealism. The OED has surrealism as meaning: “art purporting to express the subconscious mind by phenomena of dreams etc” (OED 1982). Wells (2009) expands with:

“Surrealism took the idea of the individual psyche as its theoretical starting point […] Surrealism emphasised artistic processes whereby the imaginary can be recorded through automatic writing or drawing which could thus offer insights into the world of ‘thought’ and therefore disrupt taken-for-granted perceptions and frames of reference. For the surrealist, the artist was the starting point or material source of what was to  be expressed” (Wells 2009: 281-282)

So surrealism is not so much defined by its (visual) output as by its (subconscious) input.

Wells also quotes Bate as arguing that “the surreal refers not to a type of picture but a type of meaning, an enigma” (Wells 2009, quoting Bate 2004).

With this realisation, I finally understood Sontag’s Melancholy Objects essay, which had bewildered me for years with its assertion that “photography is the only art that is natively surreal” (Sontag 1979: 51). This now makes sense: the very nature of photography means that the instantaneous, automatic creation of an image based on seeing something and pressing a button is indeed the closest thing to pure and direct connection between the subconscious and the artwork.

With this in mind, ‘surrealism’ in photography can mean two things:

  • Intentionally surreal: imagery that is constructed to recreate or represent a subconscious state of mind (subsequently recalled, e.g. a dream) through constructed scenes (Man Ray et al)
  • Intuitively surreal: imagery that is captured as the result of a subconscious state of mind – this latter definition is truer to Sontag’s argument

B&W surrealist photographers

Which brings us on to the examples we’re asked to research.

Some of these photographers can be considered to use surrealist techniques when they have taken an image that includes an interesting, unusual or incongruous juxtaposition in the frame that they saw, interpreted in a particular way and committed into a photograph.

The short cognitive distance between seeing something and clicking the shutter – bypassing conscious thought, maybe not knowing precisely why they pressed the shutter until afterwards – is what makes the pictures surreal. Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment is, in effect, recognising when the confluence of objects in front of the camera make for the most visually interesting split-second.

This definition of surrealism allows me to reconcile the movement with documentary photography practice, a connection that had previously eluded me.

The names given can be divided into the two categories of surrealism I offered above.

More intentionally surreal (constructed): André Kertész, Man Ray.

More intuitively surreal (observed): Graciela Iturbide, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Brassaï, Eugène Atget, Paolo Pellegrin, Tony Ray-Jones.

Partial list of surrealist characteristics

  • Visual
    • Incongruous juxtapositions
    • Unusual angles, vantage points, perspective
    • Objects that mimic other objects
    • Pattern, repetition, rhythm
    • Partial objects
  • Conceptual
    • Disorienting, confusing – need ‘deciphering’
    • Dreamlike
    • Sense of humour
    • Invite you to consider different ways of seeing the world – the extraordinary in the ordinary

One point worth noting is that a scene isn’t inherently or universally surreal; it is a function of the context in which it is seen, most notably the time and the place. Many images from decades ago can now seem surreal simply because the events depicted no longer take place. Similarly, images of everyday events in exotic foreign cultures could be considered surreal to westerners.

Canon Fodder

This was heavy going, and only tangentially relevant to the point of this section in my opinion. Sifting this for enlightening nuggets regarding surrealism in B&W photography was like panning for gold. But not totally fruitless…

As far as I can summarise it, Solomon-Godeau’s basic premise is that the deification of Eugène Atget in the 1970s/80s says more about the notion and practice of the ‘artistic canon’ than it does about the work of Atget itself (the course notes and many other OCA students missed the wordplay in the title and referred to it erroneously as ‘Cannon Fodder’…).

Solomon-Godeau points to five commentators from various backgrounds over the 20th century attempting to use Atget as an exemplar of… various different things, as it happens. Whilst she concurs that what they agree on is that Atget was not merely a photographer or even an artist but an author (which implies a deliberate intent, a message to be transmitted, so one must decide if Atget was an author at all, or simply a cataloguer who photographed Old Paris for posterity). What they fail to agree on is what kind of author – what he represented, and why he is an important part of the photographic canon.

Berenice Abbott thought Atget represented “realism unadorned“, (Solomon-Godeau 1991: 31) while Walter Benjamin claimed his pictures as “the forerunners of surrealist photography” (ibid: 28). John Szarkowski co-opted Atget as a founding father of modernism, drawing a line that leads to Arbus, Friedlander and Winogrand (ibid: 48). Margaret Nesbit and Maria Morris Hamburg devised further variations of Atget whose specificities eluded me.

The underlying fact that helps to explain this plurality of canonisation is that Atget left 10,000 images behind. With that much to work with, one could feasibly produce a set of images that could align Atget to practically any genre or movement. As Solomon-Goudeau puts it, the size of the archive “allow[s] the Atgetian deck to be shuffled” (ibid: 48).

So to draw the threads of this eclectic post together: can Atget be considered a surrealist photographer? Yes, if you look at certain of his pictures. Look at a different set and you may conclude that he was a typologer, or a documentary photographer, or an art photographer, or or an early modernist, or an architectural photographer, or… whatever it is that you’re trying to use him as an example of. He truly is all things to all men :-)


Solomon-Godeau, A. (1991) ‘Canon Fodder’ in Photography at the Dock. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press

Sontag, S. (1979) ‘Melancholy Objects’ in On Photography. London: Penguin.

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


5 thoughts on “Research point: B&W and surrealism

  1. helen 12 May 2016 / 08:30

    Very interesting commentary Rob!


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