Research: Surrealism and colour documentary

My surrealism definition hangup

As noted in my look at B&W and surrealism, I have a slight fixation on two different definitions of surrealism in photography, as they don’t mean the same thing but are used interchangeably in most texts on the subject.

The original definition of surrealism – “art purporting to express the subconscious mind by phenomena of dreams etc” (OED 1982) – only gets us so far, as there are two distinct approaches:

  • Intuitively surreal: imagery that is captured as the result of a subconscious state of mind – the photographic equivalent of automatic writing [“created surreally”]
  • Intentionally surreal: imagery that recreates or represents a recalled or imagined subconscious state of mind [“looks surreal”]

Gerry Badger articulated this former ‘pure’ surrealism in a 2004 feature on Daido Moriyama and the Provoke movement:

“The most valid subject for the author therefore was one’s own experience, set down as immediately, directly and spontaneously as one could make it. Provoke photographers epitomised this ‘stream of consciousness’ approach to an extreme degree. Technique, even using the viewfinder, was sacrificed for raw spontaneity, the feeling that the camera itself was dragging the image out of the photographer’s subconscious.” (Badger 2004)

The latter and more generally accepted definition of what I have termed ‘intentional surrealism’ further breaks down into constructed (Moholy-Nagy, Man Ray etc) and captured (Cartier-Bresson, Brassai, Ray-Jones, Parr, Dench etc).

(Captured surrealism is what perhaps sails closest to being the pure, automatic surrealism of the first definition above: if I see something that ‘looks surreal’ in public, I choose to take a picture of it. If it is a scene in motion, my subconscious mind may direct the exact moment to press the shutter, but I still consciously chose to take a picture.)

Most of what I can see in researching colour documentary and surrealism is really the last definition above – scenes with absurd elements or juxtapositions, captured by observant photographers.

And in the end – does the difference really matter to anyone other than inquisitive art students? The pictures are the pictures, however they were made.

Peter Dench

I know we’re asked to analyse Dench’s use of surrealism in the next exercise but it just felt more relevant to cover it here.

Dench specialises in depicting the less glamorous side of English life, which often gives rise to opportunities for surrealism – such as the juxtaposition of scene and text (as in the first two images above), the incongruous element (the dogs in bags, the face emerging from the sand), or the perfect alignment of form that leads to an amusing optical illusion like the horse’s head on the man’s shoulders.

While he doesn’t specifically use the word surrealism, the course notes quote Dench as deliberately using humour as a strategy: “I’m a big believer in humour in photography, because I think that the impact is tenfold if you can make people laugh and then drop a more serious image.” (Dench, course notes: 64).

However, I have specifically selected images here to support the surrealism point. Much (most?) of his output cannot be described as surreal; insightful, grimly fascinating: yes – surreal: only sometimes.

His use of colour is unremarkable. Yes, he favours a bolder colour palette than some (quite Parr-esque) but in the end I get the feeling that the colour palette is simply because he’s a 21st century photographer who doesn’t have a compelling reason to use B&W. The colour lending a vernacular aesthetic could have been notable if not for the fact that any number of photographers since the 1970s have done the same, to the point where ‘colour = vernacular’ is redundant.

Cristobal Hara

Hara is mentioned in the course notes for the project Vanitas (1998), and in comparison to the others mentioned here is very much a photographer who uses colour as a key part of his work.

The surrealism is heightened by the colour blocking and combinations, and it adds up to a real sense of ‘otherness’ of the places that he has captured.

Guy Tillim

Another one mentioned in the course notes, specifically for the boy-peeing-on-statue image from Leopold and Mobutu (2004), reproduced here as it was displayed, in a diptych with the base from which it was ripped – which I think lends it an even more surreal air.


Generally, though, I must say I don’t see a lot of surrealism in Tillim’s work beyond a handful of examples. There is not much humour; urinating on felled statues is the exception rather than the rule. And the colour is incidental.

Carl de Keyzer

The course notes pick out de Keyzer’s project Zona (2003), saying “Colour enhances the sense of strangeness” (course notes: 65), but does it, really?

He is very good at spotting juxtapositions, and I can pick a few where colour does enhance it but many where it doesn’t add anything. Once again I feel that the bar is set quite low for surrealism in photography, certainly by the course notes. Either that or surrealism is very subjective and I’m hard to please.

Dougie Wallace

Perhaps best known for Stags, Hens & Bunnies: A Blackpool Story (2014), Wallace is adept at choosing a locale known for its ‘surreal’ sights and making the most of the photographic opportunities.

Dougie Wallace.png

The garish colours suit the subject matter, though whether they make the images any more surreal is another question, though I can’t imagine these pics working anywhere near as well in B&W. But these are ‘surreal scenes, photographed’ more than they are ‘surreal photographs’…

Contemporary street photography

The rest of the photographers in this post are street photographers included in what’s possibly my favourite photobook, Street Photography Now (Howarth & McLaren, 2011). I’ve recently come to the realisation that street photography is the most surreal genre of all, and I’ve selected practitioners that make particularly good use of colour (more so than the examples offered by the course notes in my opinion).

Narelle Autio, Melanie Einzig, George Georgiou, Nils Jorgensen, Jesse Marlow, Bruno Quinquet, Matt Stuart and Wolfgang Zurborn.

A point that first came to mind about Dench is something that probably applies to all the photographers I looked at for this research: are there really any surrealist photographers, or just surreal photographs?

I think it’s the latter.

Sources (accessed 12/05/2016) (accessed 13/06/2016) (accessed 13/06/2016) (accessed 13/06/2016) (accessed 13/06/2016) (accessed 13/06/2016) (accessed 13/06/2016)

Howarth, S. and McLaren, S. (eds) (2011) Street Photography Now. New York: Thames & Hudson.



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