Exercise: Surrealism and colour documentary


Choose a topic that interests you and produce a small portfolio of five colour images in a surrealist style. Share your portfolio with the OCA communities and ask fellow students to comment.

Before you start this exercise visit Peter Dench’s website. Analyse Dench’s style, looking particularly at his use of surrealism. How effective is surrealism as a visual and conceptual strategy in Dench’s documentary photography?


To answer the second part first: I looked at Peter Dench as part of my last research post. Short version: he uses humour, often of the darker variety, which some people may associate with surrealism. To my eyes humour/surrealism appears in a minority of his images, but when he does employ it, the results are often quite striking.

I found it quite difficult to conjure up a portfolio of surreal images on demand, even a small one. It might have been easier if I lived somewhere more urban and populated as (to my mind anyway) the best opportunities for surreal imagery occur in street photography. I live in a sleepy, semi-rural North Yorkshire town with a distinct lack of hustle or bustle.

Turning the limitation into a challenge, I decided that I would find at least five ‘rurally surreal’ images in and around the town. Lack of people wouldn’t hold me back.

I also looked for photo opportunities that presented strong colours – mostly greens, it must be said.

I’m not entirely happy about calling these ‘surreal’ and particularly about sharing them with other students as I feel like I’d just agree with any criticism of them! There was no element of capturing the right moment in an evolving scene to render the ordinary surreal – they are really ‘surreal things photographed’ rather than ‘surreal photographs’.

I had a dig back through my archive to see if I had any old shots that were more genuinely surreal. I found a few that were, to one degree or another (surrealism is subjective).

I belatedly realised that one of my ongoing personal projects has a slightly surreal element to it: I photographically collect lost items I see in public – mostly gloves, scarves, hats etc, plus toys, but occasionally something more bizarre:


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